The CA From Hell

Imagine doing a poetry Controlled Assessment and not doing that well on it. You had to write about 2 or 3 poems and for whatever reasons, it got by you. The end result is a lower grade than the rest of your other grades. This can happen and is so demoralising and if you are in a school setting and not FE, your only option is a resit of the CA but AQA state that you cannot do the same title again.

Awkward!

This places your teachers in a somewhat impossible position, somewhere that this lad would refuse to put himself if made to. Let me explain with a true story. Someone I know well took their GCSEs a couple of years ago. She did not do that well on one CA, so her teacher, in what the Bard would call “chop logic” made her do one that to me, was far harder.

Where is the logic in that?

The answer is that there is none. Instead, the teacher, or the department, or even AQA, made her do one that had the following title: How are the men responsible for the demise of the women in each of the three texts you have studied?

The texts to be written about were: Havisham, by Carol Ann Duffy [post 1914 poem], My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning [pre 1914 poem] and then 5 scenes from Romeo and Juliet [from the English Literary Heritage], arguably Shakespeare’s most famous play.

Now, I hate and loathe it when a teacher uses this play against a student or students to set them up for a fall. I doubly dislike it when there are SEN students in the class, of which she was one of many. So when a teacher or organization does this, it makes me want to chain myself to the railings of Number 10, shouting “Power To The People” at the top of my voice.

It is just plain WRONG on every level.

For a start, it is a sexist title, aimed at aiding the girls in the class at the expense of the boys. SHAME on all those who choose these titles. Then it is only made accessible by 5 chopped scenes hastily copied and pasted together [and in this case without page numbers] to make for a scene of confusion and carnage when my eyes descended upon it in a home tuition session, which I still continue to offer locally.

But then, there is the difficulty factor.

Yes, you can know all about the writer’s views about the treatment of women at the time, about language techniques used and about how the format [poem/play] impacts on the writer’s message. But that will only get you so far. You then need confidence the size of a cow in order to be able to link all that together and your teacher [and she knows who she is] knows you are dyslexic and therefore going to struggle in pain through this.

This is tantamount to child abuse in my estimation!

So, enough ranting and how does one write the damn thing? Well, it is not as obvious as it seems. Firstly, if it was me I would make some notes on the PC under the following 3 headers.

  1. THE WRITER’S VIEWS ABOUT THE TREATMENT OF WOMEN AT THE TIME THE TEXT WAS WRITTEN
  2. THE WRITING TECHNIQUES USED IN THE TEXTS FOR EFFECT
  3. HOW THE FORM [POEM, PLAY ETC] IMPACTS ON THE WRITER’S MESSAGE

I would do as asked and find as many links, similarities and differences between the texts. But that would only help me so far. I would need someone to write one as an example, so as to show me how to go about this doozie of a question.

Well look no further for the rest of this blog piece does just that. It is by no means perfect but it aims to show that these three elements can be put together in a straightforward manner.

Enjoy.

RJ
April 2015

How are the men responsible for the demise of the women in each of the three texts you have studied?

In each of the three texts studied there is one common theme and that is the idea that women are objects to be owned, admired, looked at from afar and ultimately rejected when they fail to obey.

In Havisham, by Carol Ann Duffy, a poem written in the modern era, the reader sees how Duffy writes using modern English words from the perspective of a character from a Charles Dickens novel who has been previously at the altar on her wedding day. Rather like her recent poem from the mouth of King Richard III, this again is a monologue of sorts, airing Miss Havisham’s views as she lives out her reclusive life in solitude.

It is a modern poem set in an ancient setting in the sense that the 1850s seem so far away from the realities of the modern world and as she is a character out of Great Expectations, it is clear from the poem that the attitudes to women were as objects to be traded, loved but owned, objects that mainly came with dowries which were a sum of money and paid by the father of the wife to be. It was a payment made to the groom’s family to take her off their hands and as such, women at the time were expected to marry early and if they were not married as they aged, then their worth lessened and their value went down.

This is clearly shown in the poem as Duffy has Havisham airing her views, for she is now a bitter old woman who cries out to the “beloved, sweetheart, Bastard” that jilted her at the altar. Such language uses antonyms, or opposites in meaning. “Beloved” and “sweetheart” are terms of endearment, but “bastard,” in any context, is insulting and is nowadays used as a firm insult from one person to another, so although Duffy is airing her views, she is doing so in a very modern fashion. She does so and reveals a Miss Havisham who uses such language in the context of the poem. She is definitely not being very lady-like but she also reflects Duffy’s own sexual orientation as she berates the man responsible for her demise.

Along with this, those three opening words are spoken alliteratively, with the repetition of the three consonant sounds which are strongly felt, reflecting the feelings and emotions that exist within her heart at the time. Clearly, the triplet usage, as in the opening line, allows the reader to really feel her venom as she almost tries to emulate a stutter, or crying sound at the end. These triplets, along with the use of the rule of three in the opening three words makes this first person narrative or thoughts from the woman in the novel come to life before the reader in an exciting manner. It appeals to the modern reader from the beginning and keeps the momentum up as it continues.

Written in 4 verses, or stanzas, there is an example of a slight rhyme at the end with “cake” and “breaks” but otherwise there is no rhyme used and this is done for effect, to get the emotions across to the reader in a simple and straightforward manner. It is a blunt hammer used to smash the reader in the mind as he or she feels the sense of confusion at first, not quite understanding the meaning but then when the reader knows about the character the feelings change to those of understanding and sorrow, sadness and sympathy.

That third word sets the tone of anger and it is one aimed at the man who jilted her at the altar, the same man who stole her life from her, who ruined her in the public gaze and who made her “hate behind a white veil” for the rest of her life. It is suggestive of the idea that a man may have hurt Duffy at some point for her to choose such a person to write a poem about. Clearly, the man in question is responsible for Havisham’s demise in the public eye and in such a society at the time, this would not have been a regular occasion; indeed such a person then became known as a “Cad” or a “Bounder” for dealing so falsely with the woman he had promised to marry.

In the poem My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, the reader immediately sees the links between the first poem and this one. In this poem, there are two men; the Duke and his visitor. The Duke is showing the visitor a portrait, painted by Fra Pandolf, an imaginary painter who only exists here in this poem, which depicts the image of his now deceased last wife. But the reader is always asking the one, same question: who killed the wife and why did it happen?

This poem is set in more ancient times than Havisham in that the Duke and his visitor seem to be from an older time, which is interesting because as much as Duffy is writing about someone from a time 150 years before she lived, it is possible to say that Browning is doing the same thing. Browning was born in 1812 and died in 1889 and was a major poet of his time, so this could be set in the mid 1850s like Havisham, but is likely to be set in a previous time because the language suggests older, with words like “durst” being a good example of archaisms no longer used in the English language; it is the language of Shakespeare and his time rather than Dickens and Miss Havisham.

Indeed, “t’was not her husband’s presence” suggests the possibilities of this being set in the 1700s or earlier, where the use of rhyming couplets all the way through the poem have an effect on the reader, one that could be one of joy. To write this way is a very difficult thing to do as a poet so to then do so and reflect the attitudes to women at the time; how they were harsher than in Havisham’s time and how they did not have a free will is a very brave and bold thing to do.

This poem shows just how much the plight of women has changed over the years. Women did not get the vote till the 1920s but in times before that they were seen as commodities and the Duke uses the word “my” a lot, along with references to “my lady” as if he owns his wife outright. The language hints in the poem that he killed his own wife, or that he had her killed, or maybe, because of too much of a stressful life in his hands, she killed herself. The Duke says “she liked whate’er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere” suggesting to the reader that he was not very happy at all with her flirtatious behaviour towards other people, most notably the males of the land. This would give him motive to have her removed from his life.

In essence, if he did kill her, or have her killed, this shows that he was responsible, in some way or another, for her demise. What is left is a graven image of a once beautiful woman who still radiates a glow into his life, which maybe now, is a life filled with regret and pain at her passing. It is a slightly difficult poem to read and understand but fairly easy to understand in terms of love, life, death and murder most foul.

Evidently the sense of ownership felt keenly by the Duke is one where he knows his place, his opportunities and how he can exercise authority and control as the head of the household where he lives. This is something that is alien to the modern world of Political Correctness, but at one time and not too far back in history, this was the norm in British society.

This has always been the case and always will be the case in some societies. In British culture back in the late 1590s, there lived a man who constantly sought to fight the ways things were done. William Shakespeare, that monument of English Literature, was the sort of poet and playwright who could write something, change a language immediately and make you go home from watching a tragedy, feeling uplifted because of the nature of love.

In Romeo and Juliet, perhaps his most famous play, the reader, or audience, for it was written to be acted first and foremost, sees two families at war with each other. Written in about 1599, the story is set in Verona, Italy where two families are constantly fighting, warring, killing each other. Into all this, Romeo, who is a Montague, meets a stranger, aged thirteen, called Juliet and they fall in love but she realises that he is a Montague, her family’s worst enemy. They marry by the permission of Friar Lawrence and marry in secret, having their wedding night in secret. He thinks this marriage will unite both families.

After more fighting Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, or exiled, so he goes to live in Mantua but Friar Lawrence hatches a plan; Juliet will fool her family into thinking she is dead, Romeo will return and they will live happily ever after, but this plan does not work and Romeo dies first by poisoning himself and then Juliet wakes in the tomb and sees him dying and kills herself with a dagger. It is the tragedy that brings these two families together to live in peace from that point on, because of their loss. This is their shared tragedy!

In act 2 Scene 4 the audience observes how the social expectations of women were that you did what your parents said. Juliet is expected to marry The Count of Paris, who is rich. Evidently, her parents have found her a good match and it is true that in the time, when marriage at thirteen was allowed, she could learn to love him, in time [Paris]. This shows Juliet to be weak and feeble in character, but this changes towards the end of this scene. At first we see a typical woman of the era but she is bold and fearless towards the end.

At this point, Shakespeare uses a variety of writing techniques, including the poetic use of iambic pentameter, a ten syllable beat within each line [or most lines] of verse he is writing. In this sense, Duffy, Browning and Shakespeare all adopt a similar approach in their language used. All use verse to share their feelings towards how women are being treated by others in their society. By having a strong willed Juliet at the end of the play, strong enough to end her own life, it shows just how much we need sometimes to stand up for our beliefs and actions.

Romeo is interestingly vague at first. He is happy to “call her mine” but lets her have her way in the planning and execution of their marriage and their plans later in the play. In Extract 1 Romeo and Juliet are happy to get married but Romeo still sees her as potential ‘property.’ He knows that this marriage could end the fighting which is why he refuses to fight Tybalt later and then feels he has to kill him in revenge for his slaying of his close friend, Mercutio.

In the second extract from Act 3 Scene 4, the audience observes how Lord Capulet plans to marry Juliet to Paris but there is a problem, because she is already married to Romeo [a Montague] and her family do not know this. When she refuses, her father issues some strong words: “hang thee, you baggage, disobedient wretch!” Capulet thinks she is offensive to him, just as much as he is offended by her refusal to marry Paris. He is angry at her defiance and is hurling insults at her. He ends up threatening her with being disowned if she refuses his desires to marry Paris. Clearly, he is in control of her life at such a tender age. He has the paternal right to marry her to Paris. No-one can stop him, apart from the church law which states that “what God has put together, let no man put asunder [Marriage Ceremony Liturgy].

This then continues into the next extracts as in Act 3 Scene 5 Capulet calls Juliet his “Headstrong” in a near term of endearment but also with a slight degree of venom, which means she is still defiantly saying no to marrying Paris. Only she knows in that setting that she cannot legally marry Paris, so she hatches the plan with the Friar and Romeo to pretend to end her life. It is a drastic plan that backfires with alarming pain and heartache for all, leading to her real death after Romeo has taken the poison, believing her dead already and in the tomb.

At the end of the play, in Act 5 Scene 3, the audience are treated to a scene that makes for a quite poetic ending to their “woes” where the Prince, the local judge of Verona, tells both Lord Capulet and Lord Montague that they have lost something so valuable together and so, the families begin to live together in peace.

In this final scene in the play, the most sombre of messages is being sent to the audience, who realise that Capulet and Montague have learnt the real meaning of the words “faithful” and “truth” by having their children kill themselves for love. This makes them realise that love is a very important and powerful thing and it is the language of Shakespeare that allows this to happen.

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