For the new OCR A level examination, these two texts can be run together in the drama and poetry paper. I am quite excited about this: a 19th century Well Made Play and a Mediaeval poem, albeit a dramatic poem with narrator, hardly seem clear bedfellows.
The questions will take the from of general statements for discussion in the manner of the old A level paper. Alevel sample paper In this paper I am offering my initial thoughts as a stimulus. There are few examples of AO2 and my intention is to offer a springboard for my Year 13s to develop their own paths.
It strikes me that The Merchants’ Tale could indeed by a subtitle for Ibsen’s play. It moves the focus from Nora – usually perceived as the doll and the player with dolls suggested by the title- onto Torvald. A 19th Century merchant suffering from all that implies: ludicrous working hours, a need to maintain ‘face’ and a need to sustain a position in society based on a high moral purpose. Now, Januarie has little moral purpose – he is clearly marrying for sexual gratification and attempting to sidestep the sin of lust in so doing. But there are similarities.
Both are obsessed with their business – Januarie shows this in his constant use of business lexis when discussing marriage and love, and Torvald in the need to work on December 26th at a job which he has not even started yet. So both are driven and both enjoy their earning power. Torvald has made the home lovely and chosen most of the decor of the apartment in a manner which resembles Januarie’s luxurious Italian decoration for the wedding feast. Both have created a secret garden: Januarie in reality and Helmer in the apartment. It is clear that the return to the apartment in Act 3 is solely for sexual gratification (whether Nora agrees or not) much as Januarie builds his garden to allow him to perform the acts which can’t be performed in the home! Thus the societal requirement of a locus amoenus in which to woo and make love is still alive in the 19th century. One could even paint Dr. Rank in the colour of the courtly lover.
You should consider this. Rank loves an untouchable maiden, the wife of a friend. He is sworn to celibacy and suffers not only from his love-disease but also from the constant proximity of the unattainable. In Act 2, when he admits his feelings Nora is horrified. Whereas May seizes the chance for adultery with both hands, Nora ends the discussion with a firm finality. She will not break her moral code to that degree and is also reluctant to remove herself from the position of control which she currently inhabits. Whilst the two female protagonists share nothing in the discussion of morality, it is clear that they are consummate actresses who control their husbands even when their husbands do not realise it. That the outcome is so different is due to Nora’s determination to stop playing roles and to establish her individuality. Helmer is happy to compromise his moral position regarding Nora’s crime, just as Januarie places his hand on May’s womb, probably containing another man’s child. Nora is a new woman for the 19th Century.
Elsewhere we see Helmer as a man unable to take advice if it is not in line with his straightforward pronouncements and thus mirroring Januarie’s ignoring of Justinus’ advice. Where Januarie is flattered by Placebo, we could argue that Helmer enjoys the flattery of Nora who constantly plays the ‘squanderbird-game’, no more so that when she wants money. She knows her sexual allure and is not afraid to use it to get what she wants. This suits Helmer who wants to show her off at the masquerade dancing the tarantella in the costume of a fisher women. He revels in her beauty and is clearly turned on by this action. From here it is a small jump to Januarie showing off his lower-born wife at the wedding. Both men wish to take their rights as a husband when they are alone. Januarie is not successful and Helmer is interrupted by a string of events.
In both texts society is challenged. Ibsen writes a critique of bourgeois complacency and proposes the emergence of a new Existentialist citizen based on the writing of Kierkegaard. Chaucer holds a mirror to the world and finds it wanting. He has held positions of power in commerce and has seen greedy merchants at first hand, moreover he makes his merchant a Knight – old and lust driven – a dangerous thing to do when the ghost of John of Gaunt hovers over your family. IN short, neither offer a radical political manifesto for change, but both highlight the faults and fissures in contemporary society for those who wish to see them.
Convinced? Well, this idea will develop as the new academic year progresses. Hopefully there will be new writing and plenty of comment.