A Journey Through the Themes of Early English Literature

A. Introduction
1. Explain what I’m demonstrating/explaining in this paper
2. Discuss what readings I will be using
i. The Tempest/Canterbury Tales/Beowulf/Paradise Lost
3. Brief summary of what issues/themes will be discussed

B. Beowulf – intro to Beowulf and what themes in it I will be discussing
1. Religious beliefs – pagan vs. Christian
2. Social issues – heroic code vs. other value systems
3. Individual freedom – establishing identity through family lineage

C. The Canterbury Tales – intro to CT and what themes being discussed
1. Religious beliefs – deviation from stereotypes and corruption of church
2. Social issues – importance of company/socials issues therein of class
3. Individual freedom – focus on Wife of Bath; her personal ideas and actions of free will and social issues therein

D. The Tempest – intro to The Tempest (discuss background of story)
1. Religious issues – how those affiliated with church and how Church dealt with slavery and authority – after Protestant/Catholic Reformation – justice according to Christianity

2. Social issues – those with authority directly affect those without (corruption of power even with those in authority)
3. Individual freedom – does individual freedom exist within class system and slavery in The Tempest

E. Paradise Lost – intro to Paradise lost
1. Religious issues – the obvious discussion of Adam and Eve and the fall and good things can come of the fall; obedience to God

2. Social issues – dealing with God’s authority and the authority on Earth
3. Individual freedom – obedience to God; divine preordination versus free will; does it exist?
F. Conclusion – reiteration of themes discussed in all the literary works

“So!” The English language now has arrived from a traditional lineage of great authors and great works that all wish to portray a variety of universal truths and to teach a variety of moral beliefs. Beginning with the first old-English heroic epic tale of Beowulf, to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, on into William Shakespeare’s reign of divine drama in his final play The Tempest, and finishing an era of religious division was John Milton with his Paradise Lost. These traditional and timeless authors and English language literature pieces has defined the path that encompasses our modern pieces of literature. Along with their amazing ability to write was their simplicity of portraying universal ideas through words, characters, and fictional stories that helped influence their readers towards a more dynamic nature of thinking about the world around them. Each of these works has come a long way to being still studied after hundreds of years of their author’s death. The survival of these literary works means that they speak to the universality and innate nature of values shared by all human beings-past and present.

“Justify the Ways of God to Man,” and other religious themes and beliefs has always been a universal attribute of many early English literature pieces. Yet, early English literature, such as those listed above, did not just discuss religious issues but dealt with issues of individual rights and personal freedoms as well as social issues that concerned behaviors and relationships relating to the interactions of human beings. It is through the chronological study of these literary masterpieces that one can see the changing style of writing and language use and also the changing views and attitudes toward these universal issues throughout the years as new discoveries were being made in science, new social class distinctions and ideas were changing, and religious ideology and corruption was being questioned. It is these issues from Beowulf, to the Canterbury Tales, into Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Milton’s Paradise Lost that I will be discussing and will enlighten how these issues are formed within these literary works through text, characters, and plots.

The first English text that was first an oral tradition but then found in written text, Beowulf, is accounted as the first old-English literary work of a heroic epic poem. Beowulf has no author and there is no evidence to show if the person that put it in textual form is either the original creator or the narrator. However, what the audience can derive from this English heroic epic poem are historical facts about the time period and setting. Yet, this is not all Beowulf has to offer. Beowulf offers to its audience a discussion and discovery of various issues in an epic poem that are universal problems for all human beings.
Beowulf is an epic about a heroic man of the same name as the title. It talks about his heroic and knightly deeds to save Heorot from the savage beast Grendel, a descendant of Cain, and the mother of Grendel. His knightly deeds give him the abilities to change from a warrior to a king and he thus ascends to the throne. The plot of Beowulf involves such issues dealing with religious beliefs within a society that is dealing with pagan ideology versus Christian ideology. As well as social issues that reveal the problems between the heroic code and other value systems that the society during Beowulf’s time must learn to compromise. Lastly, the literary work involves the magnitude of establishing an identity, but how this identity is built upon deeds and family lineage and that this personal identity gives on a loyalty to family and reputation, and not a loyalty to oneself.

“Yet there lingers a belief âÂ?¦ that the feeling of the poem [Beowulf] is essentially pagan, or at the best only half-heartedly Christian,” says Margaret Goldsmith in her essay “The Christian Theme of Beowulf.” This quote sums up the idea of Beowulf’s struggle between Christian and pagan themes within the society of the time period and within the vocabulary used by the poem. One can see this in various aspects in the poem because the hints of paganism and Christianity can be seen as a struggle in how to tell the story and how the characters handle their new ideas of Christianity and their traditional pagan values. The heroes and knights within the story of Beowulf are taught to conform to a heroic code that values strength, courage, loyalty, good reputation, hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings. This code is the most important aspect of the characters lifestyles in the poem because without respect to this code then imbalance between human beings and their relationships to this world would be ruined and they would misunderstand the value of power and the authority that this code derives to fight the evil beyond their boundaries. Characters within the epic poem base their decisions on this code, and whether they succeed or fail in these decisions is seen as either conforming or disobeying this heroic code. In this code that spouts deeds in this life over the glory of the afterlife is contradictory to the Christian value system. Also, the doctrine of the heroic code weighs revenge over mourning and mercy and the Christian doctrine puts more faith in peace and forgiveness.

Even within the beginning of Beowulf one can see this juxtaposition of pagan versus Christian ideology. The Scyld’s funeral description lingers not on the pagan ideas of the floating vessel filled with treasure even though the ritual seems to be a send-off to Valhalla but he does not speak of Valhalla. Instead it is said that “men cannot/ say for certain,/âÂ?¦who received that cargo [funeral boat]” (Lines 50-2). Furthermore, even though Beowulf follows the pagan values of the heroic code he gives all trust in God before and during his fight with Grendel and after he gains victory over Grendel he thanks God for his success. “and then wise God/ on whichever hand the holy Lord/ will allot glory, as seems fitting to Him,” believes Beowulf about the upcoming battle with Grendel (Lines 685-7). Lines like these that look to God’s providence and thank God’s glory litter the passages of Beowulf in contrast to lines that speak against the Christian ideology such as those lines glorifying revenge over mourning and peace.

Establishing an identity with the society of Beowulf is based upon the dominance of male figures and it is a society where every male figure is known as his father’s son. No character within Beowulf is allowed to discuss his identity without first mentioning their family lineage. Also, the characters take pride in what their ancestors have accomplished and try to live to the same standards as their ancestors. This pride of ancestry is a model for behavior, but the way to solidify and enhance one’s reputation is through a good status by following the heroic code and doing valiant deeds that honors oneself and the family lineage. “And a young prince must be prudent like that,/ giving freely while his father lives/ so that afterwards in age when fighting starts/ steadfast companions will stand by him/ and hold the line. Behaviour that’s admired/ is the path to power among people everywhere,” these lines expound on the idea of following the heroic code and honoring ones family name through the father (Lines 20-25). This idea of a reputation during life is to gain remembrance that will continue after death, which seems tactful in a life where fear and danger are prominent features of everyday life. This importance of following the heroic code and giving honor to family lineage leaves little access for the Beowulf’s society for personal or individual freedoms. The society believed that if they violated either the heroic code or the family lineage then there would be dire consequences of either death or dishonor where one’s reputation was the basis of character and life. It was this desire for honor and power that destroyed Beowulf and that overpowered any Christian ideology.

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the rooteâÂ?¦./ Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” and with this line Chaucer introduces to his audience his infamous Canterbury Tales within the General Prologue (Lines 1-12). Canterbury Tales was an ingenious tale even for its time period and is still a stunning success for those who read it today. The discussion of social class and the difference between occupations and their duties is truthful and satirical. Also, Chaucer chooses to evoke out of his characters individuality and personal freedom even for women along with the dependence of the characters upon a group of people. With his many characters he defies their stereotypical roles by making them contradictory against what they are expected to do and say, which also expresses the idea of corruption within the church because of the contradictory actions of the clergy characters.

Canterbury Tales is the development of characters and their lives as they travel on a religious pilgrimage and tell stories about their own lives as well as fictional narratives. It is the main theme of character development and the issues involving these characters and around which the story is focused. The characters create the story around their own stories and it is the focus on theme that is the essential piece of the Canterbury Tales.

During the time period that Chaucer wrote this tale the corruption of the church was becoming immense. The church was accumulating massive wealth and the laity was beginning to realize that their proselytizing against greed was hypocritical. It had churches covered in unused goal during a time period were disease and famine ran rampant. Chaucer idealizes this hypocrisy and contradiction in his various characters that defy their stereotypical roles. Even the Wife of Bath was curious as to whether there was truth behind what a clergyman told her about only being able to have one husband because of what the biblical scriptures suggested, since she believed that she honestly had many at least five. (QUOTES FROM TEXT). This belief of hers is contradictory against the fact that during the time women were supposed to be submissive and adherent to all authority and values given to them through male and religious figures. Yet, the Wife of Bath still spouts out about domestic behavior because of her various marriages that giver her numerous wisdom in such matters. However, she is still in suspicion of whether she murdered her last husband or whether she is just lying about such occurrences and both acts are against religious teachings. Even the Monk was defiant of his stereotypical position because he enjoyed hunting, which was a noble leisure activity, and disliked study and confinement, which was seen as making up much of the Monk life. One can see that the corruption of the Church during Chaucer’s time is personified within the characters he creates.

Company during that time period was of extreme importance because is was a support structure of communal activities and lifestyles. The pilgrims, thus, create their own informal company based around their mutual connection of storytelling and sharing meals together. The social issue of creating a community on the road is further heightened because each of the travelers is not a noble, but has a working vocation either that of wife, entertainer, or fieldsman, etc. However, the real issues can are emphasized in the tale of the Wife of Bath. She is a woman who has a flawed reputation because of how many times she has been married, the fact that she is traveling alone, and the questionable status of what happened in her previous marriages. Yet, even though she utters domestic advice she still tries to determine whether she is the true authority over herself or whether God governs her or whether her husbands ever governed her. “Experience, though noon auctoritee/ Were in this world, is right ynogh for me,” says the Wife of Bath in her Prologue about the fact that her experience is authority enough for her and she needs no more then experience to instruct her (Lines 1-2). Her personal freedoms seem to consist of her own decisions after her first few marriages, and she seems to have made her own decisions within her own marriages and thus enjoyed many of her marriages. Her individual freedom is a contradiction and balance of following the rules when she needed to or when it benefited her and making decisions to benefit her without instant gratification, such as her accumulation of wealth through marriage.

The one theme that is relevant in Chaucer’s description of his characters and his opinion on his characters was the new idea that had just been introduced of physiognomy. Physiognomy was a science that judged a person’s character on the basis of their appearance. One can see this that in the description of the Wife of Bath that she has a gap between her teeth, which during that time period had a few sexual implications and this correlates with her character because she discusses her sexual activities within her marriages and how she enjoyed such activities. Chaucer speaks of the Wife of Bath with such descriptors as “Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,” and “Gat-tothed was she, soothly for to seye,” and the scarlet red hose and the gap tooth both contain sexual connotations through color and visual appearance (General Prologue Lines 456; 468).
William Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest was a masterpiece of storytelling and dramatic intervention. Few have reenacted this play because of the financial demands it takes to put on a drama occurring around the ocean and with a storm as one of its central themes. Nevertheless, in written or performed form one can see the social and religious implications.

The tempest deals with Christian justice and how a Christian seems to deal with slavery, as well as the struggle of authority figures and inferior figures within social classes and the allegations that a hierarchy of authority can put upon personal freedom. “We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep,” states Prospero in The Tempest relating the theme of the play is that all of us live in a disillusioned, dreamlike world where we all have something to discover about our world (Act IV Scene 1 Lines 156-8). Shakespeare attempts in The Tempest to relate the idea of ignorance through a metaphor of a dreamy idea of the world where when one learns something he or she is awakened from their sleep to an authentic version of the world.

Shakespeare, a recusant Catholic, writing directly after the Protestant Schism and Catholic Reformation includes in The Tempest various Christian virtues and scenes where Christian values seem to come into question. When Prospero wants revenge upon those who have wronged him he is reminded by Ariel that “The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance,” (Scene 5 Act 1. Lines 27-28). Through Ariel, Shakespeare writes in his Christian values of mercy and forgiveness of one’s enemies over the primitive importance of revenge and thus Prospero forgives his enemies. Also, it is the moral challenge to Christians over the issue of slavery that is dealt with in The Tempest. Does one as a Christian still treat slaves as equals? Does one have the right to enslave another human being on the basis of equality of human beings underneath God’s authority? The question is not fully answered within The Tempest but with the way that Shakespeare writes his dramatic play brings up these questions by also implicating Christian values within the script (Cox).

Another issue that Shakespeare puts into the script is that of the hierarchy of authority and how one behaves within these socially made institutions. There are authority and inferior persons throughout the entire play that demonstrate the behavior of such relationships. Prospero and his daughter Miranda is one such relationship, where she must obey all her father says. Yet, those holding the power in one relationship may also hold the inferior position in a different relationship such as that between Prospero and Ariel. Or the obvious authority and inferior positions of Prospero and Caliban that have further implications other then just a relationship of power.

The anagram of Caliban, of “cannibal,” is a relationship of not only authority and inferiority, but that of enslavement, denial of individual freedom, and that of the culture’s connotations of equating a slave with that of a “monster” and not of a “man.” Miranda and Prospero hoped to have civilized Caliban through English education, but seemed to have failed when he still tries to rape Miranda. Prospero and Miranda thus begin to believe that instead Caliban is inherently uncivilized and do not realize that he could behave in his brutish manner because of his oppression of individuality through his enslavement. This juxtaposition of man versus monster is a continuous symbol throughout the entire play. Even Trinculo in his speech when he first sees Caliban says, “There would this monster make a man/ Any strange beast there makes a man,” (Act 2 Scene 2 Lines 28-29).

The chronological order of readings has led one through many different variations of the English language. From Beowulf’s old style English that was heavily influenced mostly by the German language, to Chaucer’s new English with it’s lyrical voice and Latin influence, to Shakespeare’s rhyme and use of words in double meanings in a new style, to what is closest to modern English Milton’s Paradise Lost containing “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme,” (Book I Line 16).

Religious themes and ideology are obvious in Milton’s Paradise Lost because it talks about the “Man’s first disobedience,” against God. Milton’s speech and religious ideology mostly reflects the new era of Protestantism that influenced Europe (Milton). It is the obedience to God that Milton emphasizes in his literary work. “What better can we do, than to place/ Repairing where he judg’d us, prostrate fall/ Before him reverent, and there confess/ Humbly our faults, and pardon beg, with tears,” states Adam who believes that now after disobedience to God the only thing that can save them from there fall is the choice to obey eternally and repent in order to save the rest of humankind (Book X Lines 1086-1089). Even Raphael tells Adam about Satan’s disobedience in order to emphasize the danger of disobedience of Satan and humankind towards God. “That all this good of evil shall produce/ And evil turn to good” says Adam when Michael tells him of that there is hope for humankind after expulsion from Eden (Book XII Line 470-1). Milton views the first disobedience of Adam and Eve as a fault with benefits because without it humankind would not have been able to experience God’s mercy, love, compassion, salvation, and grace through his eternal providence over the human race and because of his gift of Jesus Christ, his son and the human race’s savior. Thus, it is through this obedience to God that the human race can still save them and be justly rewarded for such obedience. It is the reward in the afterlife that can “Justify the Ways of God to Man,” (Book I Line 26).

Furthermore, Paradise Lost introduces the theme of hierarchy not just within society but within the spiritual world also. Milton introduces this theme by the closer to God that one is the better grace and the higher in the hierarchy a person is. The Catholic idea was similar that the Pope is closer to God then any other human being and those that fall below him relate their stations to their closeness to God. Milton produces this ideology with the layout of the universe as Heaven being above and, Hell below, and Earth in the middle somewhere. Earth is still in God’s providence, Hell is farther away so it is not in God’s providence, and Heaven is the divine area of God’s providence because it is the closest to God. Milton even does this with the characters. God’s angels are closest and the top of the hierarchy, Adam and Eve are farther away, and Satan and his rebellious angels have fallen from God’s grace and are placed the farthest away from God. Satan disobeyed God and rose up against him because he believed the hierarchy even within Heaven was unfair and was unwilling to follow the orders of this unreasonable chain of command that did not allow him free will. “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heaven,” comments Satan about the powers of God ruling over him and therefore decides to create his own hierarchy where he can control his own personal freedoms (Book I Line 263).

Milton also discusses the idea of personal freedom and individual rights because he divides his argument between divine preordination and free will-this is also a major dividing argument between Protestantism and Catholics. Milton discusses that even though free will made the man perform his first disobedience he questions whether it was meant to happen in order to prove God’s mercy and compassion through the extension of Christianity through Jesus Christ. It devises a question of whether men, and even other creatures such as angels, really do have freedom of choice or does the omniscient and omnipotent God who is wrathful and merciful already predetermine their fates? “Within himself unworthie Powers to reign/ Over free Reason, God in Judgement just/ Subjects him from without to violent Lords;/ Who oft as undeservedly enthrall/ His outward freedom,” comments Michael to Adam while discussing human free will exists but since it does exist one has the freedom to choose to live under the laws of God or not and because God gives humankind free will then human beings may be subjected to corrupt rule on Earth, but never in Heaven (Book XII Lines 91-5).

It is through these common themes and thoughts portrayed through a variety of centuries and a variety of differences in language that makes the idea of universal appeal to humanity substantial. All of these literary works expressed, in a number of different manners, this universality of humanity through amazing fictional stories, characters, and plots. These literary pieces throughout the years develop the universal topics such as the religious ideas that reflect the culture and questions that all humans have about existence of the human race and God. Also, they highlight the universal subjects of social issues that are always pertinent because human beings will always interact in similar relationships. As well these pieces touch on individual rights and personal freedoms and how much one has or does not have under various circumstances. These literary pieces, from Beowulf, to the Canterbury Tales, to The Tempest, and finally Paradise Lost, are all successful and timeless pieces because of their appeal to universal themes that can speak to and impact humanity no matter whether it is the 6th century or the new millennium.

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