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William Shakespeare continues to be the most famous writer in English. His plots, themes, characterizations, emotional journeys continue to astound us. It's as if he peels back human nature for us all to see. 18 of his plays are available as Shakespeare Playbooks (workbooks for directors). Also, seven in one volume are presented with transgender/crossdressing characters, and others are available as reading copies.
Venus and Adonis, a poem adapted from Greek myths, was Shakespeare's first appearance in print; he was known first as a poet, since theater was not at that time considered "literature." Forward Venus seduces the young virgin Adonis, but it was not to last.
Venus and Adonis
James MacPherson, a Gaelic scholar, reconstructed poetry-stories of the 14th Century bard, Ossian, stories of love and loss, treachery and revenge. How much is Ossian, how much is MacPherson is hard to tell.
Jacob Tonson's publishing project was to gather and publish all the stories and poems of Ovid's "Metamorphosis" (here retitled The Changes) from John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, and a few dozen other British poets, around the theme of gods, people, animals being changed into other beings. From the creation of the world to the crowning of Augustus Caesar.
John Milton wrote Areopagitica,an essay during the Pamphlet Wars period of the Interregnum, in the form of an address to the Long Parliament, against the proposal of official censors. Citing examples throughout ancient history, he finds that censorship, for whatever reason, by stifling free discussion, leads to dumbing down, or even collapse of political life. Though unheeded at the time, his document has become the pillar on which freedom of speech, freedom of the press is predicated.
Areopagitica: Freedom of the Press
William Blake was an independent thinker, artist, poet, visionary. Some of his work was kept from publication until after his death; among these are expressions of his deepest beliefs, which he assumed would be controversial. In The Everlasting Gospel, some pieces are incomplete; altogether, they represent his deepest thinking on the subject of religion or personal worth.
The Everlasting Gospel and Other Poems
The writer William Godwin was a leading liberal, married (eventually) to Mary Wollstonecraft, and father of Mary, who later married Percy Bysshe Shelley. Among Godwin's writings is Caleb Williams, a novel that has many of the elements that would presage the detective genre— false accusation, hidden motives, prison, escape, manhunt, eventual exoneration; everything but the "detective."
Godwin's daughter, Mary Shelley, grew up in a household that entertained leading liberals and poets of the day, including one who would change her life, Percy Bysshe Shelley. At eighteen, she went with Percy to a small gathering in Switzerland at Lord Byron's place. The weather was inclement, and Byron proposed that they all come up with ghost stories, a genre then coming into vogue. Mary's proved to be the most interesting, and she later wrote it out as the novel Frankenstein, the precursor to a wholly different genre: science fiction. Rather than spooky bats, vampires, ghosts, or zombies, this was a look at what science and the future might bring.
Another novel of Mary Shelley's came to light recently. Though she wrote it nearly two hundred years ago, her father, William Godwin, had forbidden her to publish it, because its theme was that of a father with incestuous feelings toward his own daughter. In fact, Mary Wollstonecraft had died in childbirth, giving birth to Mary. Whether there was any truth to such a story in real life, the resemblance to her own life could have fed the gossip mills, whether it was true or not. That novel is Matilda, a story in the then-current vein of sad sentimental fiction of the time.
A novel-length poem, Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning could be called semi-autobiographical. The main theme: a young woman rejects an easy marriage to someone whom she actually likes— in order to make her own mark on the world. Her struggles as a woman alone in mid-Nineteenth Century Europe, eventually pay off, and decades later, when her early suitor has faced his own reversals and struggles, recognizes in her a worthy partner, not just a pretty face. E.B. Browning was considered as a possibility for Poet Laureate of England, but she died in her fifties, leaving a legacy of poetry.
Christina Rossetti in the famous Rossetti family, was best known for children's stories. Goblin Market is perhaps her best-known, the story of two sisters, and how far one would go to save the other. This is a story of temptation, tragedy, perseverance, and trust.
Charles Dickens' most enduring story is A Christmas Carol, something of a departure from his social-conscious tomes filled with colorful characters. In this short story, he creates supernatural elements to explain an overnight conversion of a crusty old man, by forcing him to look at his own life, and how his own choices imprisoned him. A perennial favorite at Xmas time, the reading of it was shared in my household growing up, as a reminder of what Xmas was supposed to be about.
A Christmas Carol
The Deserted Village, by Oliver Goldsmith brings to a human level the immense changes that the early Nineteenth Century Industrial Revolution had on the English countryside, as cottage industries were displaced by factories in the cities and independence gave rise to commercialization.
The Deserted Village