Chasing the black dog back into the shadows


What do these words have in common?

Yep, you guessed it. Part of their definition is ‘melancholy’ and, in whose dictionary?

That’s right. Sam Johnson himself. Because, of course, he’s a self-confessed fanboy of Anatomy.

Johnson kept a pet. Not the sort of pet you’d enviously wonder if you could smuggle home, but the sort of pet you’d begin to wish you were allergic to, just to avoid having to spend time in its presence. His pet: a black dog.

When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking […] After dinner what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect.


The solution to insomnia? A spot of reading, of course. And what better to read than a book which promises and acts as a cure. You’ve guessed it, Anatomy prescriptions all round.

Perhaps he is one of the better known admirers of Burton’s tome. He both prescribed it and sang its praises to James Boswell (best known as his tireless biographer). Allegedly giving it the privileged position as the book to get him out bed. But, this position, can easily be misinterpreted. On a surface level that throwaway remark appears to suggest his desire to read it and immerse himself in Burton’s prose. That may be the case.

But, crucially, it was not just enthusiasm which fuelled Johnson’s early morning sojourns into melancholy. It was deep need and urgency to chase away his own ‘black dog’ which also beckoned him from the bed sheets to those pregnant pages which embalmed him as moth-like his melancholy pulled him to the light, he chose to share this light with Burton and be enlightened by his advocated cures and, with a specific biblio-therapeutic practice attend to his melancholy. We know this based on Boswell’s reports concerning Johnson’s relationship with Anatomy. Most famously, Boswell noted that:

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy [Johnson] said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.

But he also prescribed it (as well as constant light), and its constituent advice, to Boswell, which reveals a good deal more about why he may have also been reading Burton’s Anatomy:

The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you is this, be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.

Interestingly, he separates himself, and his own melancholic tendencies, from his advice here, through the distancing ‘men like you‘ (implicitly, not me). One way to avoid idleness, therefore, is to occupy one’s time and a weighty tome such as Anatomy may well fit the bill. Surely study of a volume such as Anatomy is not a communal activity, but it certainly takes no prisoners of idleness. One out of two isn’t too bad, and certainly if we take Burton’s justification of writing the volume as an avoidance of idleness and melancholy, then Anatomy can certainly act curatively in Johnson’s eyes, as well as a really successful wake-up call. Actually by modulating Burton’s statement Johnson slips out of the judgement of solitariness, since by reading Anatomy he is not idle, and nor now will Boswell be if he heeds Johnson’s advice.

But (thankfully) not all of Johnson’s readings of Anatomy were through such rose-tinted spectacles. He too found the volume of quotations to be, at best, a little excessive, even if the book itself had merits. Thus, Boswell records Johnson conversing on its merits and pitfalls as he gives advise on cultivating control of one’s mind:

To have the management of the mind is a great art; and it may be attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise […] Let him contrive to have as many retreats for his mind as he can, as many things to which it can fly from itself. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is a valuale work. It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation. But there is a great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind.

The silly responder in me, wants to know how someone can writing not from their own mind.. But of course that is not the point here. Johnson is trying to emphasise, I suspect, the powerful pen of Burton when he writes from his own mindful experience of melancholy and its constituent practices and cures. So perhaps another useful takeaway, for Johnson, from Anatomy is a literary lesson in how to cultivate and talk of one’s mind, melancholic or otherwise.

This book, weighty enough to press on your chest and awaken you two hours before you really want to get up because you want to explore its contents and because you believe it may do you some good, is hefty enough to throw down upon those dark four-legged thoughts which dogged Johnson, and one he was to recommend prescriptively for the numbing of, or enlivening away from, melancholy and its accompanying comrades of idle solitariness, and as a model for writing insightfully and mindfully in the truest sense of that word.

For Johnson Burton’s mindful take on melancholy mattered, and thus he was to sing its praises to adjust and apply its advice, and indeed to use material from within its covers, in letters, discussions, and popping up across his canon. For him, if you were browsick, a ready compress of Anatomy would serve to alleviate the melancholy and to give you a fascinating insight into the process of mind reading and mind writing.

Energising, Revitalising or, Philip Pullman on Why Burton’s Anatomy Matters.

I promised I would be deviating considerably from chronological order, and, true to my word I begin with a recently republished discussion of The Anatomy of Melancholy by Philip Pullman (yes, really).

Written first as an introduction to the Folio edition of Burton’s tome (2005), this essay was recently republished in his Daemon Voices (2017) collection which compiles 32 of his essays all of which are worth reading and all of which discuss, to some extent, reading or writing, or most often both. I’ll admit when I took the volume out of the library recently for reading for fun I discovered there was to be no final escape from research, and, hounded by melancholy, I discovered between its boards his prefatory writing on Anatomy. But I’m glad I did.

Of course as it is an introduction to a rather shiny well polished Folio edition, he had a vested interest in presenting the book in a good light. And because it is an introduction particularly targeted towards a non-specialist audience it is by necessity brief, broad, and designed to entice. My researcher hat started to itch when he referred to melancholia and depression as one and the same (really? I’ll leave you to think about that one. It’s been causing fractious debates for decades):

Those readers who have some experience of the disorder of the mind we now call depression..

But he is by no means the only writer to conflate these two kinds of suffering, and while we might grumble at the historical contraction, and problematise all those things it does not give adequate attention to, nonetheless for a non-specialist it may well be a helpful way in to get an idea of what Anatomy might be about.

But minor or major conflations aside, Pullman’s piece offers us an insight into the keen eye with which he has read and digested Anatomy. He admits from the off sets all the reasons not to, and then proceeds to counter with reasons why these deterrents ought really to be overcome. Thus he begins:

This book is very long [he’s not wrong. One of my favourite glosses included in Daemon Voices gives testament to this as Pullman praises post-its:‘the pages of my paperback copy bristle with so many little yellow stickers that its thickness is almost doubled, and it wasn’t a slender book to begin with’]. What’s more, like the book Alice’s sister was reading on that famous afternoon, it has no pictures or conversation in it [unless you count Burton’s conversation with himself, and conversation with many of his sources.. Ok maybe not conversation in the conventional sense]. To add to the drawbacks, parts of it are in Latin. And finally, as if that wasn’t bad enough, it is founded on totally outdated notions of anatomy, physiology, psychology, cosmology, and just about every other -logy there ever was [this reminds me distinctly of my grandparents declaring a relation was off to university to study all the ologies. If Pullman is to be trusted, that’s a lot to cover in one degree].

I’ve interfered with Pullman in Burtonic fashion here to give you a flavour of what it is like. (If dog owners grow to appear like their pets, I hope the same osmosis cannot be drawn between me and Burton; he would certainly win in a battle of the detours). Burton is, ever the ‘critic at the elbow’ sending our minds hither and thither as he loads example upon example of cases he has known and as he supports each statement he makes with side notes to rival even the most fulsome of footnotes of the most diligent of PhD students.

But he then goes on to pose the very question this series is considering: ‘what on earth makes it worth reading today?’. But he goes further, arguing it is not only worth reading but also is ‘a glorious and intoxicating and endlessly refreshing reward for reading’. High praise indeed. His reason? Simply put, Burton’s personality. Burton is, he notes, oxymoronically alluring: ‘tolerant and cranky and wise’ and he goes still further advocating that ‘an hour in [Burton’s] company is a stimulant to the soul’, and the ghost of Burton rejoices. For this is, after all, one reason he hoped others may read his Anatomy: dually curative and cathartic, for writer and reader alike. And it seems Pullman has fallen under Burton’s anatomical spell.

I particularly like his reading of the converse of depression to be energy, and the way Burton curatively energies his reader with restorative force:

Those readers who have some experience of […] depression will know that the opposite of that dire state is not happiness but energy; and energy is contagious. We can catch it from others. They cheer us up.

This reading of contagious curing is fascinating, and indicates that for all this discussion of humoral physiology and its outdatedness, there is an enduring acknowledgement of the revitalising power of communion and affective interaction with others. This is not the only time Pullman makes transhistorical connections, some more helpful I think than others, but each time drawing together the past and the present to assert both Burton’s importance in drawing them together and his usefulness as a lens with which to view seemingly modern notions of the self, psychiatry, and curative practice for ‘disorder[s] of the mind’ as he would frame it.

Thus, Pullman can read the digressions as stimulants and mechanisms to prevent dangerous stopping and dwelling upon one’s melancholia (even the 35 page one he notes – Burton at his most extreme). He proposes that the very structure of the Anatomy rushes full steam ahead to stop writer or reader dwelling idly on one notion and thus succumbing to or worsening their state of melancholic humour. Figuring Burton as like one of the conceited compassed lovers in John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Morning’ – such that it matters not how ‘far [he] doth roame’ but that indeed he does come home – he argues that ‘the point about Burton’s digressions is not how far he roams but how firmly and certainly he comes back’ to his argument it is his memory and nifty ability to compare – both seemingly effortlessly – which is worthy of attention and praise, Pullman proposes. Noting that if he was a computer we might say he had ‘a great deal of RAM’, alluding to the power of the prose to compel and to address even unuttered concerns. So, if we follow Pullman’s line then the reason Anatomy remains popular today is because in its purchase and reading we imbibe in a healing tonic – a torrent of wordy wisdom to stem melancholy’s deep and weighty humour. And because in its powerful energy, and in the delight Burton takes in his prose, it revitalises us and shakes us out, refusing to let us down until we have reached its final flyleaves. He argues too, it shows us much more than the suppressing term depression indicates:

Our word “depression” has always seemed to me far too genteel, too decorous for this savage and merciless torment. Anything that can palliate it is worth knowing; and certainly no disorder has ever had so rich, so funny, so subtle and so eccentric an anatomy.

About psychology, and concludes if Samuel Johnson were to credit Burton with great praise, then who is he to question it: ‘Nor would we wish the book a sentence shorter, or be without one of the thousands of anecdotes and quotations. This is one of the indispensable books: for my money, it is the best of all’. And if that isn’t indicative of its enduring popularity then I don’t know what is.

Philip Pullman, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy: An Introduction to an Indispensable Book’, Folio Society edition (2005); repr. In Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling ed. by Simon Mason (Oxford: David Fickling Books, 2017), pp. 329-39.

The Bizarrely Enduring Popularity of The Anatomy of Melancholy

If I pitched to you a reading recommendation of a book that clocks in at 1392 pages (NYRB edition, 2001), with passages of Latin and Greek, oh and I told you it was a cathartic volume on melancholy I suspect most, before I’d got much further, would conveniently find any number of other books they just have to read before this one. And with good cause. Appearances can be deceptive, and The Anatomy of Melancholy certainly has an intimidating initial impression but, perhaps like Infinite Jest, this is part of its allure.

The length of a book is not perhaps the deterrent from Middlemarch and Ulysses to Wolf Hall, The Goldfinch, The Luminaries and even Game of Thrones, there’s clearly a market and appetite for length. There’s a strange kind of pride in this connected in part I suspect to the commitment of time, energy and sustained engagement these books demand. After all, if you can binge watch why not binge read. Although, to be clear, I am not proposing a binge read of Anatomy that would be a challenge. (I am partly intrigued though, so if you do decide to, please let me know how you get on).

But something has kept this volume not only in print but popular to boot (the Penguin edition hits the shelves November this year, for instance), and this something must be more than sheer historical interest – there are far worthier volumes to occupy its place as a major contribution were this the only ground on which it is regarded.

People rave about it, and we are justified, I think, to ask why? The same enthusiasm is not for instance granted to James Ferrand’s equally mad and similarly peppered with references Erotomania, or if we want to search for the closest all-encompassing contemporaneous example perhaps Timothy Bright’s A Treatise on Melancholy or even Andreas De Laurentius’ treatise, A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: Of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheumes, and of Old Age might be fairer comparisons. I’ve used my copy of Anatomy as a useful doorstop (it really is big, the NYRB edition for instance is marketed and merited for being ‘surprising compact’.. it’s still 6.1 cm deep), oh and as the basis of much of my research, but it seems to me still quite niche. Why then does it still attract readers across the board? Of course, this is a question we could ask of many books but I can’t imagine, for instance, in several hundred years’ time a reader turning to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (in whichever iteration) for some light relief. That’s an unfair comparison perhaps, Burton’s is far more than a diagnostic manual and offers a curious cocktail of classical, proto-medical, theological, historical and political ideas as across his editions the ever-growing anatomy stretched and flexed his literary muscles. And perhaps that’s part of the point it is more than just the anatomy of melancholy, its enduring popularity is perhaps because it offers more than its title or intimidating spine lets on, it offers a tale of melancholy lived and managed, a portrait of early modern melancholia epidemic and of the ebb and flow of the ever fluctuating passions of the mind.

Now many scholars have written in much greater detail about the multifaceted purposes of Burton with AnatomyMary Ann Lund and Angus Gowland offer particular insights in this area – and by no means do I want to step on their toes. But what I want to do across this short series of posts is to think about responses to Anatomy past and present, and why it still attracts readers almost 400 years following its first publication in its much reduced state in 1621. Not to incite you to read it, or to detail its contents, nor even to advocate purely its merits and ignore its many shortcomings (subjectivity, gendered assumptions and anecdotes which pull us back and forth from yarn to yarn further and then back closer to the argument, I’m looking at all of you), but to simply consider why it is that this early modern volume on melancholy still endures today.

I’ll not be following any particular chronological order I’m afraid and much like the capaciousness of Burton’s writing I’ll be drawing examples from as far and wide as possible and with that in mind, if you have fallen under the spell of Anatomy (for whatever reason) and loved or hated or felt indifferently about it, then I’d love for you to share it and join in the conversation. You see, despite the name of this blog, Burton is not restricted to the early modern period or to any helpful or more spurious connection with Shakespeare we might draw. Indeed to misappropriate Ben Jonson (speaking of Shakespeare), let’s begin to consider why we might say both of Burton ‘would he had blotted a thousand’ lines and yet at the same time wonder why he in his continued popularity perhaps has proved himself to be ‘not of an age’.

The anatomical theatre curtain lifts.. Let the dissections begin!

Trump, Shakespeare, and Missing the Point

With the rise of dystopian fiction sales – most notably Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale but also Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here – an increase in popularity largely attributed to its alarming relevance to contemporary western, especially American, society, it might seem that Shakespeare is more out of date than ever. But his controversial presence has made itself known in the news and refuted the period constriction early modern drama might suggest. This has happened through passing Twitter comparisons to King Lear:

And, more directly, in the recent Julius Caesar controversy. If nothing else,  controversy gets people talking and just as, whatever you think about the result, I think we can agree that it’s great that Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize saw people talking about the Nobel prize in literature, so too is it great that the political production of Julius Caesar has got people talking about Shakespeare’s plays.

Caesar, despite his ancient heritage (100-44 BC) and his slightly less ancient early modern position (1599), has proved again to be able to speak powerfully to contemporary society. Set to be perhaps the most performed Shakespeare play of the year, Shakespeare’s story of power, corruption, moral justice and dictatorial rule continues to demonstrate its relevance to the world.

The background of Brexit, political instability, and the rise of leader-dominated politics now on both sides of the pond are given a nod by productions either subtly by implication, or explicitly, most notably the Public Theater’s production of the play this summer. In this production Trumpism has been directly equated with Caesarism.

Drama and tump of course not new connection forged, take the Trump impersonator competition of LA:

Nor is this the only Shakespeare play to deal with assassinating a ruler for perceived personal, political, or societal gain – I’m looking at you Richard II, Macbeth and Coriolanus to mention just a couple. However, Julius Caesar has emerged as perhaps the most relevant to American society. The ironic tone of Alison Wilkinson’s discussion of the recent controversy of the Public Theater’s production, highlights the way in which although this play can be construed in a contemporary American context this is not the only way to view it. Deposing a leader who has failed to represent the ideals their supporters want, or proved themselves inadequate might equally be applied to Guy Fawkes in 1606 or Theresa May and the conservatives seeking to topple her from her chair of limited stability, for failing to prove strong or popular. Wilkinson points out, that:

Though the play, being more than 400 years old, never mentions Trump’s name, the resemblance was noted by critics who were present at the show’s previews, and their reviews were picked up by the broader conservative media.

This suggests that there is a conservative fear of this production emphasising too readily the connections between Shakespeare’s Caesar and America’s Trump, but might it not be more radical, and dangerous, to do this more implicitly? That’s certainly the approach the RSC have taken to their production of this play currently running at Stratford. Contemporary American and British contexts are there but the impetus is on the audience to find them, not the actors to emphasise them by means of costume, body language, or appropriating the text into an American context.

Image result for trump in bath julius caesar        Cast members appear in the Public Theater production of Julius Caesar

The media frenzy surrounding this production also implies that depicting assassination has never been controversial until now.. This is of course simply untrue. This was certainly true in the early modern period. We only have to look at the quickly hidden Tragedie of Gowerie (probably based on the assassination attempt of the Earl of Gowrie to assassinate the King in 1600), or the privy councils attempts to try and exert more control over plays due to the emergence of themes of state on the stage which was strictly banned. It’s clear playwrights paid little attention to this. Calvert reports the prevalence of risky themes in early drama which see playwrights stick two fingers up to the authorities.

The Plays do not forbear to present upon their Stage the whole Course of this present Time, not sparing either King, State or Religion, in so great Absurdity, and with such Liberty, that any would be afraid to hear them (Samuel Calvert, 1605)

But it was nonetheless a risky business and, as the Delta-Trump-controversy has demonstrated, remains so even in 2017. Of course the cliché (that to get round this problem playwrights situated their plays in thinly veiled ‘foreign’ or ‘historical’ contexts) is true, but the Public Theater has defiantly refused to be constricted to the historical or early modern Julius Caesar through their direct situating of the play in contemporaneous America. They have issued a disclaimer arguing that they’re not advocating violence and, frankly nor does Shakespeare – just look at how the play ends! Brutus, Mark Anthony, well it doesn’t end well for the assassinators or the assassinated! Because of course that is the irony, all these critiques levelled at this production have to a great extent totally missed the point (and power) of the play. In it Shakespeare shows the limited power and ultimate futility of violence and the corruption at all levels of society, if anything Shakespeare’s Caesar is one we might even be able to sympathise with dependent on his portrayal. Certainly far more than the historical dictator, particularly when he shows some weakness and reticence to be associated with ultimate power.

As Eustis’ defence makes clear Julius Caesar shows the dangers of attempting to preserve democracy by non-democratic means, a warning which is inherent in the play! Nobody owns the truth nor can finally determine the framing of truth. This is especially striking in a post-truth world, but it does not mean it hasn’t also been striking pre-Trump.

The danger associated with art is something to be celebrated not quashed by financial sponsors and Trump enthusiasts!

Trump Jr. inadvertently mentions the cross-over of politics and theatre, and surely plays are always political – always choosing to take a particular political stance, the director’s critical view always informs productions, however explicitly. Also worth pointing  out that it’s not just Trump that has been paralleled with Caesar – this also happened to Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and even Obama.. Yes, you’re right the latter didn’t get the same kind of press coverage.. But it did happen!

But this adapting of Shakespeare to speak to 2017 America, is staunchly defended by the Public Theater:

The Public Theater stands completely behind our production of JULIUS CAESAR.  We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values.  We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions.

Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of JULIUS CAESAR in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare’s play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.

Cassius and Brutus indeed discuss in the play how often the scene will be played out for others to witness the arrival of apparent liberty democracy and freedom from restricted rule.

Cassius:                                         How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,

In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!

Brutus:            How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,

That now on Pompey’s basis lies along,

No worthier than the dust!

Cassius:                                                            So oft as that shall be,

So often shall the knot of us be called

The men that gave their country liberty. (III.i.111-18)

Why might not ‘unknown’ accents also include the American, or the apparent libertarians be located in the twenty-first century. It might appear that Benson is right to point out that ‘it is “not a subtle statement” to portray the murder of a sitting U.S. president,’ but nor does it necessarily mean that the production is likely to inspire murderous sentiments in its audience. But it is this with which the bank of America and Delta took particular issue:

No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste.

As Stephen Greenblatt points out, it seemed to be ok for Trump to suggest assassinating Clinton last year.

If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. … Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.

Pretty dangerous thing to joke about, surely. Particularly given the murder of a politician during the Brexit campaigning in England that same year. Problem is was he joking? Cassius certainly wasn’t in Julius Caesar when he was convinving Brutus, and the consensus was certasinly that this was an active assiniation threat from Trump..

But when a play uses a thinly veiled depiction of American society well that’s stepping over the line.. Nonetheless, the odds of Trump being assassinated have been demanded (betting companies have refused to give them).

Yes, this production includes a Trumpish Caesar in the bath tweeting (plus a Mrs Caesar with a Slavic accent), and shows that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but it also shows the limitations of violent attempts to destroy total control through violence with the final fall of the regime at the play’s close.

Tina Benko and Gregg Henry as Julius Caesar and his wife Calpurnia in Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar

To fail to do so, would be to miss the political point of Shakespeare’s play. Julius Caesar critiques not only Caesar but, and of more consequence those who criticise him for personal gain and an attempt to build a new system. It underlines the damning power of rhetoric (Mark Anthony), the power of persuasion (Cassius and Brutus) and the power of the collective and individual conscience. While all of these have Trumpian resonances, the warnings are more pervasive. It has warnings indeed for the very media and corporations (seeking to control) which have sought to critique this production. It warns against propping up patriotism or a leader whatever the cost, as well as warning against the leader themselves.

Julius Caesar implicates all its observers and warns the danger of apathy as well as action. It should stir feelings of unease whatever its setting, and just as we shouldn’t welcome the ease in which dystopian fiction appears to map onto American or British society, nor should we be content when we watch Julius Caesar. If we are, then we’ve missed the point, and failed to heed its warnings. The rise in populism makes Julius Caesar all the more pertinent but as in the play, populism is endemic in our societies, it is not just in the leaders, or wannabe leaders, but in the people who fuel it, vote for it, or do little to stop it.

Julius Caesar urges us to interrogate how we challenge attempts for absolute control of thought and action, and tragically shows the inadequacy of fabricated democracy – violence begets violence and if anything we come away from the play urged against, not for, violence, whether Caesar, Brutus or Cassius is a recognisable leader of today or not. Julius Caesar leaks beyond its fictional play bounds and like a triple-shot espresso wakes us up to our apathy, the fragility of democracy and the subjective nature of freedom.

Two Year Degrees: The Controversy

News today of plans to allow universities to include two-year degree programmes (at a higher cost to the student, of up to £13,500) have been greeted with concern. Perhaps rightly so. But I wanted to add my two pennies’ worth to the discussion, and as it might be reductive (or certainly challenging), to try and squeeze it into Twitter’s 140-character limit, I’ve opted for a slightly longer response over here.

It seems to me that the concerns fall largely into two camps: student-orientated and academic-orientated although, as we might expect, there is plenty of overlap. Concerns such as the added-financial cost, the impact on the values of degrees and disciplines, the impact on teaching and learning, and the need for a summer vacation are all mutual concerns shared in both camps, but the impacts are, of course, different. As such, once I’ve shared my experience – and why I have mixed, though mostly positive views, on the concept – I’ve broken the post into two sections. The first considers the implications for students, and then the second turns to the impact on academics and the ramifications for universities.

But first, my story. Why bother adding my view to the mix. Well, for many of the same reasons that others have, for starters, but also because I have done a two-year degree, at one of the few institutions that currently offers the programme – The University of Buckingham.

On the surface the tuition was far higher than my peers at other institutions were paying (these were the days before the original tuition fee hike), but once you factored in losing a years living cost it worked out to be significantly cheaper. This is aside from the academic benefits such as smaller class sizes (my biggest lecture class was 50, and the average on my course was more like 30), tutorials of no more than six and a promise to take students at a variety of academic levels (looking at the student and not just the A-Level, or in my case, IB results), not just the best, but to raise all students to high degree levels. It meant a programme that, for me, was normally four years would last and cost only just over two years. I missed out on a year-abroad, but I also missed the cost of one.

When I began my degree, in English Literature with French, I hoped to go into translation work, or teaching. As I entered my final year, and when I decided to take a voluntary (yes, really) dissertation in English literature, I was encouraged to consider the possibility of further study. In fact, as it turned out I completed a BA and MA in the space of three years. Some people go into the 3-year BA+MA from the get-go but mine wasn’t planned.

Many of my friends were international students and for them, particularly those from the states, Buckingham was a significantly cheaper option. But they’re far better at talking about that, so I’ll let them explain. For others they were juggling families, jobs they’d managed to get two years leave from to complete a degree, and others who’d come back to study after many years in other professions. It was a lovely diverse mix. While I was there 60% of students were international, we had many mature students, and people from all walks of life. It was part of what made studying at Buckingham such a brilliant experience.

I’ll draw on my experience a bit as I think about the impact of rolling out a similar scheme across the country, but there’s a whistle-stop tour of my degree experience as an undergraduate at Buckingham.

Student’s perspective

As a student money is precious and sadly often marked only by its absence. The student loans and institutional scholarships seek to help with tuition and living costs, but being a student is an expensive business. With the sanctioning of increased fee of up to £13,000, if the loan system is not adapted to match this, then for many the option of two-year degree will be far beyond their budget. This is particularly sad given that it is those for whom the cost of a degree is too high, and the idea of taking time away for three years from paid work is unthinkable, who might benefit most from a two-year programme.

Linked to cost is the concern over losing the summer vacation. For a large proportion of students this summer vacation functions not for holidays but rather for part-time holiday work in order to fund next academic year’s degree and living costs. Those 4+ months of time away from university allow uninterrupted time to earn, unlike the part-time jobs undertaken in term-time which have to fit around busy lecture and assignment schedules. This is certainly true, and an issue that may well deter students from the two-year programmes. I took up a part-time job in the weekends and evenings during term-time, and then worked in the vacation periods between terms (we did still have 12 weeks off from university a year).

Whether you are on a two or three year programme, it means juggling. I was lucky that my term-time job was at one of the university libraries and allowed me time to study in the less busy periods, and my vacation job (cleaning at a Cambridge college) did mean I could listen to audio versions (thanks to the free librivox service) of texts we would be studying the following term. Worked well with Shakespeare, less well with the particular recording I got of Paradise Lost, but I supplemented this of course with reading the texts on my commute into work. One memorable occasion saw me cleaning a student kitchen, while listening to one of Donne’s sermons on death, only to be stopped by a student to ask if I knew what was number one in the charts that week, ‘since I can hear the thumping of music from your headphones.’ A new reading of Donne perhaps.

The summer vacation also, I gather from friends who had it, poses another difficulty: forgetting. Forgetting study routines, skills, and content. Certainly my friends found this, with breaks spanning from May-September, it was easy to forget the mathematical proof taught the previous Autumn, even for the most diligent of students. Sure it allows for longer set texts like Ulysses to be prescribed in advance of the next academic year, but breaking for such a long time can see students struggling to adjust again each year, and this struggle may not just be academic. With an average of only two or three weeks off each break, we simply didn’t have time for this to happen on my programme. The longest break, over Christmas, at about six weeks gave us a mini-equivalent of the summer vacation, but with just about enough time to catch up with family, friends, cram in some work, and read up for the next term, it was time to go back again. This model wouldn’t suit everyone but I enjoyed it. It’s a challenge, but it’s also much more like the working world in terms of holiday length. I remember at my interview being advised that holidays should be taken as holidays and not filled up with extra academic work because the term-time schedule was so intensive. I stuck to that, mostly..

The value of a degree might become perfunctory – a means to an end with a particular career in mind, as opposed to the study of a discipline (or disciplines) in and of itself. Well possibly, since the current system is already used like that, but two-year programmes need not necessarily be seen in this light. My story tells the reverse. I went into the programme with particular aspirations in mind, but you change a great deal over the course of a degree, and love for the subject spurred me on to do an MA and then a PhD. Love for literature is why I want to become a lecturer and enter academia, post-PhD, so I can share that subject love – love for the study of it in and of itself – with students embarking on their undergraduate journey.

Leading me neatly into a view from the academics side..

Academic angle

It saddens me that there are suggestions that a two-year degree is somehow inferior, that the scholars it produces have somehow had a lesser, stunted experience. It is different. Not inferior. And in fact I had more weeks of teaching over my two year programme than several friends on three year programmes. The model Buckingham uses is a four-term system i.e. the additional teaching found in third year runs for two summer terms over the two-year programme, so the content is still there. I admit it perhaps gives you less time to ponder the texts, but I don’t recall feeling this as I studied. Further reading during and post-degree meant I continued to think about texts long after we had been assessed. I certainly don’t feel my academic experience was lesser, in fact studying so many texts alongside each other, gives chance for organic links and connections to develop between texts. I remember this in particular in my final term when modernism and renaissance literature modules ran alongside each other and I found renaissance literature helped me understand modernism, while my friend found the reverse, but we both found the connections we were forming between the periods and texts fascinating. We still talk about it.

For academics, like students, the summer vacation is not a holiday. It’s time set aside for research and everything else that there is no time for in term. It’s time needed to work on projects put on the back-burner while teaching takes priority. Archive work, conferences, and deep study: these are things that it’s tricky to find time for amongst the admin, teaching and meetings which characterise term-time. If nothing else it is these things which the REF assesses. Research is important. It informs the teaching, and furthers the discipline. Research and teaching are of course intimately connected but term leaves little precious research time. Two-year programmes then appear to present a big problem, when can research take place if there is no summer break? Buckingham’s solution to this, at least in the English and languages department was to alternate, so that each lecturer had at least one term sabbatical a year (i.e. 9 weeks at least). It worked because the university is small and so such arrangements are more easily made, I’m now at a larger institution for my doctoral studies and even though the English department there is relatively small (in terms of staff numbers), I suspect it would be very difficult to arrange this easily. But before implementing two-year degrees universities, will have to consider this – and not just because their REF score (and soon TEF score) may depend on it.

A big problem of course is the status of the discipline, and more widely the potential it has to degrade the status of degrees. Suggesting they are simply there to be got-through, or there to function as a passport to a particular career, as I discussed above. This has an impact on how we view the role of a lecturer, the purpose of university teaching, and indeed research. Universities ought to be places in which students develop and grow intellectually in their chosen field and enjoy that process of change through – in the case of English literature students at least – literary texts and criticism they study as they find their own voice, oral and written. The process is as important as the degree awarded at the end. Universities, at least for the humanities, are not, and should not be viewed merely as training colleges, churning out degree stamped students for a particular career. Buckingham, long established in two-year programmes, was able to encourage intellectual growth, academic excellence, and eventual degrees which recognised both. It was small too, and so you were known by all in the department. There was a sense that all (staff and students) prompted and played an important role in the development of every student. But this will be a real challenge for new programmes pioneered by existing universities.

As I wrap up, I am sure I will not have covered all the concerns which the subject of two-year degrees poses, indeed that would require a far longer post and by someone far more qualified than me. But I wanted to share my experience, and why I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to do a degree in two years at Buckingham. I acknowledge it is not the right model for all students, nor for all academics and institutions. That option is important. It isn’t a one-size fits all solution, and nor should it be implemented as such. It will certainly require adjustment for staff and students, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I don’t think it is a model which ought to be forced upon students or academics, particularly if only the extra financial benefit, and not the extra work for staff and students, is considered by university boards. It will only exacerbate the already problematic marketization of higher education. Keeping track of all students and supporting those who fall behind is, as a fellow PhD student pointed out, tricky enough across three years, and two years leaves an even smaller window it is possible that the compromise might mean less students per cohort in order to make the programme work. Whether for or against two-year degree programmes, supporting staff and students needs to be at the forefront of our considerations. We need to consider the impact on students and staff, and supporting both academics as they teach and research, and undergraduates as the study, whether they embark together upon a two-, three-, or four-year degree programme.

Perchance to Speak

Today is world mental health day. A day which affects all of us and a day which indicates both how far we have travelled and how far we still have to go. Raising awareness of the devastation mental illness can cause is of course crucial, and it is only in recent years that it has become less (less being the operative word here) of a taboo to even talk about mental illness. It’s still tricky. It’s still to a great extent seen as a kind of step-brother to physical illness. On the fringes and, worryingly, can be seen by some still as physical illness’s imaginary friend. But clearly both of these figurations are problematic. Problematic for us as a society.

Thinking you can put a band aid on mental illness and kiss it better, or telling someone suffering with mental illness to jump back up, smile and get over it, is as ludicrous as Trump thinking his apologising for discussing women in that way would make everything better. Both are like rubbing sand in the wound. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there and doesn’t hurt. We can’t see viruses attacking the body, but we know about it when we’re knocked down with the flu.

Attackers inside are real and they hurt and damage. Remember the fairies of Peter and Wendy, well they’re the opposite of that. When someone says they don’t believe in them they grow stronger and multiply. No wonder then that sufferers of mental illness are terrified of admitting it. It is scary. It isn’t easy. Particularly seeking help in, what can be a hostile environment. And it is something which we should all be deeply concerned about. Mental illness will affect one in three of us in our lifetimes. I know this not just as a statistic but from personal experience. My friends suffering from mental illness are not just a statistic. They’re real people with real pain. Mental illness touches us all.

Mental illness, like its sufferers, comes in all shapes and sizes and the very idea of calling people ‘sufferers’ is of course a tricky one, because it means we are distancing ourselves and solidifying the perception that one way of life is normal and mental health patients are decidedly abnormal. This is clearly a false dichotomy and one we need to actively challenge. Admitting you are suffering from any kind of mental illness is an act of courage. And I want to particularly talk a bit about depression today.

Depression, although it can affect anyone, is particularly associated today – thanks to statistics – with women. People argue over why women suffer from depression more than men, or indeed whether they do at all – some even suggest that women are just more willing to seek help. But this of course is in direct contrast to the enormous step seeking help is that I’ve just been suggesting. In fact this argument rather than emphasising the strength it takes to seek help, seems to dismiss women as weak and therefore more willing to need others to help. Clearly this is not true. The very act of seeking help is certainly strong and courageous and if women are doing this more than men well then that shows the strength of women against the odds. But I want to discuss a case of depression of a woman in the early modern period. A woman who couldn’t seek help and who didn’t have a voice because. As we will see, there are alarming parallels to be drawn with sufferers of depression today, and particularly with women suffering from depression today.

The woman, or more accurately, young woman I want to talk about is the Jailer’s Daughter of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen. Probably known best as a lower-class Ophelia. The Jailer’s Daughter falls in love with a man called Palamon but he’s way out of her class league so she fears it may never be possible, nonetheless she hopes in her heart that love may find a way. She rescues him from jail but he runs off without even so much as a kiss of thanks, much to her dismay. She drifts in the wood falling deeper and deeper into the pit of despair and lamenting her loss. Eventually after an attempted drowning, and a troubling scene with madmen, she is brought before a doctor who makes clear this is an illness of the mind. The cure suggested is one we flinch at: another man must pretend to be Palamon and take her to bed and then to wed.

Doctor: If she entreat again, do anything;

Lie with her if she ask you.

Jailer:  Ho there, doctor!
Doctor: Yes, in the way of cure. (V.ii.16-18)


She is given no say in the matter. As a woman suffering from mental anguish she is forced to submit. Her fate is left as a question mark at the end of the play.

For the Jailer’s Daughter seeking help and speaking out was not possible. The pain may have been too great and besides she was a lower class woman. The odds were firmly not in her favour. Women and their association with emotional excess, is something we haven’t lost. Real mental health problems can be all too easily dismissed with men who behave in that way being told to man up, while women’s pain is dismissed as PMSing or other derogatory terms. When the Jailer’s Daughter does speak after her escape to the forest it is in heavily sexualised language.

O for a prick now, like a nightingale,
To put my breast against; I shall sleep like a top else. (III.iv.25-6)


Although this might be fine for a man, for a woman it is deemed entirely inappropriate and indicative of madness. Imagine if a tape had been released of Hillary Clinton’s locker-room talk.. There is a clear sex imbalance here, and the Jailer’s Daughter shows us how this impacts mental health too. Similar symptoms displayed in men in the early modern period were diagnosed as marvellous melancholia, while women were forced to submit to sexual cures. You can guess what sex the physicians who thought up those cures were..

So then, for the Jailer’s Daughter, she speaks a lot but her voice is not heeded. She complains of pain but it is dismissed and rejected by society. Speaking out about mental illness as a woman in the early modern period was dangerous and rarely met with sympathetic response. Women were seen to be weak and needing the help of men to make them “normal” again. The Jailer’s Daughter’s final silence then is troubling not because she hasn’t tried but because she couldn’t. Now the early modern society and 2016 clearly are very different in many ways, but the way sufferers of mental illness are seen is perhaps not all that different. If anything mental illness, or at least melancholia, was seen to be far more common and normal, than mental illness is today. We know mental health is an important concern, and yet it is all too readily brushed under the carpet leaving mentally ill people to suffer in silence and not to seek help that they deserve.

We need to acknowledge not that ‘it’s ok not to be ok’, but to get away from these contrasts of being ok, or being normal and, their damaging opposites of being not ok or abnormal. Between sufferers and well those who call them sufferers. Offering support, giving chances to talk, and acknowledging that we all suffer in all kinds of ways need to become the norm. Forcing our own opinion or cure on anyone, as the Jailer’s Daughter’s case teaches us is violent, arrogant, and results finally in violence not reaching out. Better rather that we are silent and allow others to speak, to voice their pain. Showing compassion and love is worth a thousand hodgepodge pieces or advice or attempted cures. It is not for us to say what is real or painful, what is normal or ok, but simply for us to open our arms and hearts in quiet solidarity and support, for mental illness touches us all.

The One with the Eyes

I’ve had a bumper couple of weeks for play-watching, managing to catch King Lear, The Rover, Cymbeline and Two Noble Kinsmen all on a couple of chocka-block research days over in Stratford. I’ll write more about The Rover, Cymbeline and Two Noble Kinsmen shortly but today’s post is concerned mostly with King Lear.

King Lear, up there with the likes of Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night is perhaps one of the most performed plays of Shakespeare’s canon. I’ve seen three productions of it, a performance of its source play (King Leir), a screening of Verdi’s operatic Lear, and at least three screen versions. Why is it performed so much? Well for all many of reasons, not least because of its seemingly eternal place on GCSE and A-Level specs (though I hadn’t encountered the play until I studied it as an undergraduate). But I’m less concerned with the why, and more intrigued by the effect this has on a play.

We come to a production of a play we are familiar with a different attitude than we have for one we have not seen before. How will they stage the plucking, we wonder, and what about the cliff scene. Productions have to struggle to be even more challenging and novel in their depictions to enable us to see the play in new lights. But productions themselves are of course readings of the play – each one offering a fresh take on familiar lines. For instance I’ve seen King Lear performed outside on scaffolding and a stage tied to a tree, complete with war-paint covered characters, in an Oxford college garden; a performance in Blackwells bookshop which saw the company banging books on the stage to create the storm; and then of course, most recently, the current RSC production (King Lear (RST, Stratford-upon-Avon, 22nd Sept 2016. The matinee).

I arrived to the production early (well in fact very early, I was queuing up at 10 for an on the day ticket), this is a rarity for me. Usually I’m sitting in the Shakespeare Institute library doing some archive work when I glance at my watch and realise I’ve got five minutes before the play starts.. But not this time! Those of us who arrived early were rewarded. We saw the entrance of all eight peasants. Wandering around before finding their places on stage, faces hidden to the audience. Then the lights went down, and the play began.

Poverty and wealth, as I’ve never seen so clearly before, were ever present features on the stage. The wealth of the king as he was carried in, sharply juxtaposed with the voiceless, faceless, black figures who wandered the stage.

King Lear sits high up on a throne in a fur coat and crown looking down at his daughters who are looking behind them
Lear and his daughters in the riches of the court

This was a subtle nod to the later poverty, desolation and homelessness Lear finds himself in but also a striking comment on the rich and poor divide in the kingdom which, while present in the play, I’ve rarely seen drawn out quite as powerfully as in this production.

Goneril and Regan were suitably nasty, and there was a particularly powerful moment when, as Cornwall falls, wounded by the servant who would protect his master Gloucester to the last, Regan looks at him, no pity in her eyes, and turns and walks away as he dies. This betrayal was all the more potent as the audience likewise watched on as he died, trapped in a glass box in which they interred Gloucester. Like watching on TV, we gazed on the pain of Cornwall and, yes I’ll say it, maybe felt just the tinniest smidge of sympathy for Cornwall- despite his violent deeds – as he bled to death alone. Drawing attention to our watching (as audience members) this box reminded us of perhaps the guilt we privileged viewers, shared in the excess violence we were paying to see. By contrast, this production showed Albany to be a nicer man than I remembered, he sees beneath the evil of his wife and the manipulation and strives to stand up for justice and his father-in-law, though Oswald was as horrible as ever.

All of this makes it sound like a dark play and it was. But it was also probably the funniest Lear I’ve ever seen. A troubling yet untroubling production of the play. The audience were laughing a lot and indeed were being encouraged to do so by the actors, in a sort of lets-all-laugh-about-it approach I’m more familiar with either at the Globe or, more generally, in a um comedy. Lear of course is not a comedy but that’s not to say there are not comic moments. The comedy didn’t just come from the fool who, of course, is not only funny but also speaks profound wisdom unlike those who grow foolish around him. Comedy came too from Edmund. Not a man I usually associate with humour. From Kent, and even from the evil sisters (in moderation). The tragic conclusion was perhaps all the more painful for the more comic and lighter start of the play. We returned to the second half with barely a laugh in the house. The profundity of the tragedy had returned with the ice-cream to the stalls.

The storm was particularly well done. The purpose of the tarpaulin which had covered the stage from the beginning slowly became apparent as, like children playing with a parachute (but darker) it was wafted and rose a mighty storm as it waved and crashed about the stage with Lear and  the fool high up in the elements. Rain poured down on the projector behind, and the blasted heath was blasted indeed.

There was also a sense of magic, or some kind of dark power at play in the words of judgement Lear spoke, whether to his daughters, or the storm. He spoke with magnitude authority and in a fearful way that, it was almost as though Vader was among us proclaiming the power of the dark side and forcing his way upon us. This power necessarily weakened as Lear’s power waned but the dark magic similar to the words of Prospero in the Tempest was alarming in its power. It suggested that Lear had once indeed been a powerful monarch with a dangerous temper. This was no benevolent nice-old-man Sher played but once still burning with emotions even if his senses and intellect were slowly failing him.

But why, you may wonder did I begin this piece talking about eyes and re-seeing productions. Well, it was at this production of King Lear that I first saw again the show through new eyes, thanks to my neighbour. The lady next to me turned in the interval to ask if I was a student.. Apparently my (certainly unacademic) book for interval reading gave me away. She then revealed that she’d not only never seen Lear but didn’t know the story and was wondering if I could tell her it. What a treat! I then relayed the story of what had just happened and then a non-spoiler (harder than it sounds) of the action which was coming up, things like: something nasty is going to happen to Gloucester quite soon thanks to the baddies Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund, watch his eyes for a clue. Ok not very cryptic. But of course that means little until you actually see it for the first time! The second half was then far more exciting because as bits I’d nodded to in the summary took place my neighbour expressed shock, delight and horror. I’ll never forget her horrified smile as she realised what I’d meant about the eyes..

Edgar/Poor Tom helps the newly blind Gloucester

It’s easy to get used to a story, expect something of a play, and become numb to its marvels. Productions with their novelties can help us see familiar things anew. But, just as teaching has made me remember just how cool literature is and why I’m researching, so sharing the plays with new audiences can make us see them in new lights. And what more apt a play than a play which is all about seeing, blindness, and of course eyes: King Lear.