An Interview with Ian Mckellen – King Lear

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How does Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from both Innocence and Experience compare to Webster’s ‘The White Devil’?

Both Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and Webster’s ‘The White Devil’ demand the audience to feel pity at certain moments within the texts. In Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ from ‘Songs of Innocence’, the audience feel pity for both the narrator of the poem and ‘little Tom Dacre’. During the industrial revolution, small children were often given the gruelling job of sweeping the chimneys because they were small enough to fit up the narrow chimneys. The life expectancy of these children was very low and those that survived were often permanently crippled due to the strenuous lifestyles they had to lead. This is the same lifestyle that is shared by both the narrator and Tom Dacre in the poem, and it is Tom Dacre’s dream that calls for our pity. The audience pity him because he is too innocent to see that he is a victim of exploitation. This sense of false hope is present throughout the poem in its entirety.

Similarly, in Webster’s ‘The White Devil’, the audience feels pity for Isabella. Isabella is a victim of her own love and good nature. It is her love and devotion for Bracciano that result in her death by poison. We pity Isabella when she is meant by Bracciano’s spiteful response to her love ‘Oh, your breath! Out upon sweetmeats and continued physic, The plague is on them’, and also when she feigns responsibility for the marital breakdown between herself and Bracciano in order to protect his honour; an act of such nobility following such hurtful comments are sure to receive a large amount of pity from an audience.

Another similarity between ‘The White Devil’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ is the theme of death. Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweep’ from ‘Songs of Innocence’ and also the one from ‘Songs of Experience’ contain images of death, such as ‘locked up in coffins black’ and ‘clothed me in the clothes of death’. This can literally be seen to reflect the many deaths of the little chimney sweepers, and also the other children being put to work in dangerous conditions during the industrial revolution.

Death is also a recurring theme within ‘The White Devil’, this can be seen through the constant discussions of death, e.g ‘both her hands to death’, ‘murders’, ‘cold grave’ etc. There are also the rife amount of murders which take place within the play, including the death of Isabella, Vittoria, Bracciano and Camillo.

Another key theme that is present within both sets of texts is the corruption of the church. In ‘The White Devil’, Monticelso symbolises the corruption with having a ‘black book’ with the names of all murderers and criminals at his disposal. Like in ‘The White Devil’ we also see the corruption of the church present in both of ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ poems from the ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’ collection. Blake rejected organised religions such as the Church, because he saw it as a device used for social control. This can be seen in the last line of the poem from ‘Songs  of Innocence’ which seems to have an underlying tone of sarcasm, ‘so if all do their duty, they need not fear harm’.

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‘The White Devil’ Questions

How does Isabella actually meet her death?

The death of Isabella happens very early on in the play in Act 2 Scene 2 through the medium of a dumb show which was a very popular device used in Elizabethan and Jacobean era. We see that Isabella is poisoned when she kisses the painting of Brachiano before bed. The lips on the portrait of Brachiano  are laced with poison by Christophero and Julio as it is a known ritual of Isabella’s to kiss the portrait of her husband before bed. It is a depiction of her unyielding devotion to Brachiano and magnifies the horror and brutality of the nature of her death.

Based upon the speeches between Francisco and Monticelso in act 3 sc 1, what kind of trial is Vittoria going to receive?

Vittoria is set to face an unjust trial, as the outcome is almost decided before the trial has even taken place. We learn from the speech that there is nothing but ‘circumstances’ to prove that Vittoria has committed adultery. The only proof they need and have is ‘her black lust’, her adultery is unholy and this will be enough to condemn her and will be grounds for punishment. Monticelso being so close with the church has great power and later becomes the pope, so he has great influence over the verdict of the trial.

In Act 3 sc 2, How does the audience respond to Vittoria?

Vittoria in this scene shows that she is a strong and capable individual as she is able to defend herself. The audience after watching this scene may well adopt a new found respect for Vittoria, as she is eloquently able to defend herself, she appears wiser than the lawyer. She appears to be very calm and collected considering the circumstances and the sentence she may well face.



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Character Analysis ‘The White Devil’ – Female Characters


Isabella is Brachiano’s wife, Giovanni’s mother and Francisco’s sister. She adores her husband but the feeling is not mutual, she is treated very unjustly by Brachiano and this is reflected by her short existence upon the stage. Isabella is the first to be killed and could be identified as the only resemblance of innocence within the play. She is full of hope and truly believes that her love for her husband will bring him back to her. She is also a very honourable character, as she is willing to feign bitterness towards her husband publicly in order to protect his honour, this honourable act is driven by her love and devotion. Her death helps to reveal Brachiano’s true character through his lack of remorse and sinister response to her death “Excellent! then she’s dead.” Her life is over very quickly, and it is ironic that her death is as a result of her devotion to her husband.

If I had to cast ‘The White Devil’ I would cast Amanda Seyfried as Isabella based upon her portrayal of Cosette in ‘Les Miserables’. I believe that she encapsulates innocence in this role, and her infatuation with Marius is clear throughout. She is clearly head over heels in love with Marius, just as Isabella is with Brachiano.


Cornelia is the mother to Vittoria, Flamineo and Marcello. She is a woman who’s family have fallen from a higher status and are now poor. This is why Flamineo resents her so much. She disapproves of Vittoria and Brachiano’s relationship as it is adulterous and immoral, she expresses her opinions openly, and can be described as the voice of Christian morality. She has her children’s best interests at heart, she fiercely protects them and is devastated when Marcello is murdered by Flamineo, nevertheless, she still tries to protect Flamineo as her love for him is unconditional. Her children’s actions drive her to madness and are responsible for her demise. Cornelia is virtuous and a good character in a play full of corruption.


Vittoria is Cornelia’s daughter, wife of Camillo and the sister of Flamineo and Marcello. She is central to the play, as her love affair drives the plot. Although Vittoria is married to Camillo, the audience is able to sympathise with her, as he is much older than her and not a suitable mate for her. Vittoria is a creature of beauty, frequently referred to as the ‘fair Vittoria’ etc, we can also assume that she is very beautiful because men are attracted to her in the play. Vittoria is a strong and capable woman in her own right, she shows in court that she is wise and able to defend herself. She is a controversial character in that the audience have to decide whether she is a good woman who has been corrupted by the men surrounding her, or whether she is scheming and responsible for the deaths of her husband and Isabella.

If I were to cast someone as this role, I would cast someone who is very beautiful, possibly of Italian descent with olive skin and dark hair.








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Other literary works at the time of Webster’s ‘The White Devil’

John Webster was born in 1580 and died in 1634, although there is not much known about his early life, what we do know is that his most famous plays are ‘The White Devil’ and ‘The Duchess of Malfi’.

Interestingly, when ‘The White Devil’ was first performed in 1612 at the Red Bull theatre, its reception wasn’t quite what expected, in fact it was considered a failure. It seems that no one is quite certain as to why this was received so poorly, but some suggest that perhaps the complexity of the play was too much for the audience at the Red Bull Theatre.

Webster was writing at the same time that Shakespeare was alive, and so it is fair to say that their career paths overlapped. ‘The White Devil’ was written in 1612, and so was written after many of Shakespeare’s most well known plays had been written. By then, ‘King Lear’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Macbeth’ and many more plays had been written. However, Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ is thought to have been written around 1611-1612, and so it is likely that these two plays were written at the same time. It would perhaps be fair to comment that Shakespeare’s works may well have influenced Webster’s work, as we can assume that he would have been well aware of his success as a playwright.

In addition to this, other works of literature were published in 1612, including Ben Jonson’s ‘Love Restored’ , Nathan Field’s ‘A Woman is a Weathercock’ and George Chapman’s ‘The Widow’s Tears’.

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‘Nurse’s Song’ William Blake (innocence)

Blake wrote two poems entitled ‘Nurse’s Song’, in this analysis i shall be referring to the poem taken from the collection ‘Songs of Innocence’.


This poems is four stanzas in length, with four lines in each stanza. It may be worth noting that the poem is twice the length of ‘Nurse’s Song’ from ‘Songs of Experience’. The rhyme scheme is a somewhat simple ABCD pattern, perhaps to reflect the way in which the nurse’s gentle and wise voice. In addition to this, in each third line of each stanza, there is internal rhyme, ‘my heart is at rest within my breast’. Perhaps this additional rhyme is to echo the tone of voice used when speaking to young children. There are three voices in the poem, the narrator, the nurse and the children.


This poem is very successful at revealing the innocence of young children, he presents them as being full of joy and energy and as being almost one with nature, they want to continue being with the ‘little birds’ and the hills that are ‘covered in sheep’.

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‘The Sick Rose’ by William Blake

‘The Sick Rose’ by William Blake is both one of his most successful poems, as well as one of his shortest. The poem in its most literal form tells of a sick rose that is destroyed by the ‘dark secret love’ of a worm.

The most popular interpretation however is that the act that takes place between the ‘worm’ and the ‘sick rose’ is violent and destructive sexual intercourse.


The poem contains only two short stanzas, perhaps to reflect how quickly the ‘sick rose’ is destroyed by the ‘worm’. The rhythm is rather slow and drawn out’O Rose’, almost as if the poem is painful and slow for the speaker to observe. The tone is dark and sinister and the rhyme scheme is irregular. There is an alternate rhyme in line 6 and 8, ‘crimson joy’ and ‘destroy’ which successfully makes the poem sound more sinister whilst simultaneously showing the reader that the act has been carried out and the ‘sick rose’ has been destroyed.


A rose is seen to be both a delicate and beautiful creation. We associate roses with love, yet we must not forget that they possess thorns and are therefore also potentially dangerous. A worm however is generally negative, they are not aesthetically pleasing and are considered a nuisance when found in one’s apples. The worm in the poem is most likely a reference to the male, and the sick rose a reference to the female. Blake could be suggesting that both male and females can be dangerous, and the most dangerous of all is love and the acts that are related to it.

Blake is perhaps trying to reveal the act of sexual intercourse for what it often is. He could be trying to show that it is more than the idealised image that it so often assumed to be an act of love within a marriage; but is often forceful, wanton and unholy. Perhaps Blake is trying to show to the church that despite its teachings, people have sexual intercourse out of wedlock and not for the purpose of procreation.

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‘The Tyger’ by William Blake

‘The Tyger’ by William Blake is often referred to as one of his most famous poems. Taken from Blake’s ‘Song’s of Experience’, it can also be recognised as being the counterpart of the poem ‘The Lamb’ from ‘Songs of Experience’.


‘The Tyger’ consists of six quatrains of rhyming couplets. Meaning that there are six stanzas of four lines each. The rhyme scheme takes the form of aa,bb,cc etc. The tone of the poem is rather steady and repetitive, this is seemingly due to the use of rhyming couplets, perhaps Blake chose to do this in order to emulate the movement of a tiger.

The use of rhyming couplets in the poem may be what attracts a younger audience to the poem. The simple rhyme scheme is simple yet very memorable. It helps the reader to contemplate the large number of rhetorical questions within the poem.


This poem is extremely philosophical, it is rich in rhetorical questions which demand acknowledgement by the reader. These rhetorical questions perhaps provide us with a window into Blake’s mindset and values. We know that Blake rebelled against the church and its God, and this is evident throughout the poem and many of his other works. This poem is very bold and attention grabbing. The prospect of questioning God would’ve been unheard of and  would not have been kindly looked upon by a society at this time.

In this poem, Blake uses the form of a tiger to reflect God’s characteristics. A tiger is a ferocious and potentially very dangerous being. It is a powerful creature that we as humans learn to fear. This can be contrasted with his portrayal of God in ‘The Lamb’, being a gentle and innocent being of whom is benevolent and true; we do not fear lambs as we do tigers.

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Hedge Schools

Hedge schools were essentially secret schools that were set up for Catholics to learn to read , write and learn basic arithmetic. The national system of education came into play into 1831, but despite this, hedge schools still continued for a while after.

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Translations – What was going on in Ireland at the time it was set?

‘Translations’ by Brian Friel was first published in 1981, however, the play is set in a hedge school in the town of  Baile Beag ( a townland in County Donegal) in 1833.

Nineteenth century  consisted mainly of farms of which landlords owned and would then be rented out to the poor Irish population. The landlords and law enforcers worked together as the Irish carried out long hours of labour tending to the crops of which they were so heavily reliant upon.

Whilst the rest of the UK were going through the Industrial Revolution, Ireland was still a widely rural country. However, it is important to note that there were still some factories in Ireland, just not many. Ireland had a few textile factories in the North, and of course, the Jacobs and Guinness factory in Dublin. Apart from this, the majority the Irish economy relied on farming.

At the time ‘Translations’  is set,  Ireland was going through a relatively large transition. In 1829, the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in both Ireland and the UK. Before this Act, Catholics had been restricted on many things based upon their religion. The new law meant that Catholics were free of these unjust restrictions and became free of them. As a result of this, the Catholics were able to study at university and were allowed to be admitted to parliament. In addition to this, the Irish Reformation Act of 1832 meant that rather than being restricted to 100 seats at parliament, they were given 105.


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