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Questioning the Canon is a new feature in which I hope to bring to light lesser-known books about a certain issue, which can be read alongside or instead of infamous ‘classics’.
The canon is defined as ‘a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms which is effortfully pulling me through the endless terminology of my literature degree!
“Canon: a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study”
Essentially, you can think of the canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts. These songs are the most frequently listened to, but fans of obscure alternative groups have been questioning since the dawn of time – well, since the NOW CDs came out – whether they actually represent the best quality music. How often do you hear the phrase ‘that’s so mainstream’ used as a dismissal?
“You can think of the literary canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts!”
Recently the same phenomenon is taking place in literature. People are starting to discuss whether the authors we hold up as cultural icons – Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth – should be accompanied by previously marginalised writers. Our idea of what constitutes ‘great literature’ is becoming broader.
This can only be a good thing, as it means more diversity and social representation in what we read!
NB: Both of these plays come with serious content warnings for sexual assault/rape (off-stage) plus some extreme on-stage violence and murder. There were a number of moments that turned my stomach so please take care if you are sensitive.
The Canon: Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
Number of reads (based on Goodreads ratings): 22,307
Synopsis: Titus Andronicus returns to Rome as a hero, having fought for the empire against the “barbarous Goths”. He brings with him a prisoner – Tamora, Queen of the Goths – who is to be married to the Emperor Saturninus.
Tamora covertly harbours a thirst for vengeance against Andronicus, who is responsible for the brutal killing of her eldest son. Meanwhile, he has his own scores to settle.
As the cycle of violence escalates to a fever pitch, the line between good and evil, innocence and guilt, civilisation and barbarity becomes increasingly blurred. When is revenge just plain murder?
The Questioner: The Revenger’s Tragedy by Thomas Middleton
Number of reads (based on Goodreads ratings): 2,561 (11%)
Synopsis: After Vindice’s lover is poisoned by the Duke for refusing sexual advances, he enters the Duke’s corrupt court, disguised and intent on revenge.
The bizarre chain of events Vindice sets in motion results in a chaotic parody of the revenge tragedy genre.
Questions Asked: In Titus Andronicus and The Revenger’s Tragedy we have two ambiguous protagonists, Titus and Vindice. Their increasingly questionable morals foreground the ethical dilemmas surrounding revenge.
If those in power are corrupt, should an individual take justice into their own hands? If so, do they inevitably become like the criminals they seek vengeance against?
The dangers of posing such questions during the Jacobean monarchy may have been why The Revenger’s Tragedy was initially published anonymously.
I think the main difference between the two plays is that Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy takes itself less seriously, parodying the genre. While it still contains some distressing scenes, the overall tone is more tongue-in-cheek.
Recommendation: Both revenge tragedies are definitely worth a read: dramatic, vivid, gripping…and gory (consider yourself warned).
I would suggest reading Titus Andronicus first, as once you have an idea of revenge tragedy conventions, the satire in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy becomes funnier.
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You may also like Questioning the Canon: William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
Have you read either of these plays? Have an under-rated book that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!