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English Literature

Elizabeth Jennings: My Grandmother


Sample task

Examine how Shakespeare portrays family relationships in Richard III

Examine how this kind of relationship is explored in poetry, for example in Jennings’s My Grandmother and/or Clarke’s Catrin. Refer to other poems from the poetry selection in your response.

What is your response to the pieces of literature you have read? Make links between the ways the writers have considered and presented the theme.

In Elizabeth Jennings’s poem My Grandmother, the narrator remembers her grandmother, but associates her strongly with objects rather than personal feelings. She does not feel any grief for her grandmother, although she does feel guilt for having once refused to go out with her. It is an unconventional family relationship, just as many of the family relationships in Richard III are unconventional: Richard’s mother considers him to be a "toad"; Richard himself has an odd idea of brotherly love ("I do love thee so/ That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven"); and Richard finally ends up wanting to marry his own niece in order to cement his position on the throne. In both texts, however, there is the idea that family is necessary, and has benefits, even though they are most noticeable by their absence.

In My Grandmother, for example, there is a sense of emptiness in the grandmother’s life, despite the clustering of objects, first in her shop and then in the one narrow room in which she lives. The need for human companionship is highlighted by the idea that the objects cannot give her a reflection: the way in which humans need to be reflected is by other humans. The grandmother needed the objects, although she never used them, but it is clear that the relationships in the poem are highly dysfunctional. Similarly, in the play it is possible to attribute Richard’s unashamed evilness (he is so ugly he is "determined to prove a villain") to the lack of love he gets from his mother, who tells him to his face that she wishes she had strangled him in her "accurs’d womb", before he was even born. This is not a very maternal way of speaking, and it is shocking as a result. Where mothers do not display ‘proper’ maternal feelings in texts, it is always shocking for the reader, and can be used to create particular effects. In Gillian Clarke’s Catrin, for example, she describes a very tense mother/daughter relationship, which trails "love and conflict". However, that relationship is in no way as extreme as the conflict between Richard and his mother, the Duchess of York.

There are many complexities in the family relationship in Richard III, partly because of the complexities of the political alliances of the time. Political alliances were made by marriage and family bonds in the times in which the play is set (and when it was written). Richard’s desire to marry his niece, also called Elizabeth, a symbol of his unwholesomeness, is born of his need to support his position on the throne. There is something distasteful about this: aside from the familial relationship, the age gap between Richard and Elizabeth could as easily be the topic of one of Shakespeare’s poems, Crabbed Age and Youth, which "cannot live together". Elizabeth’s mother, Queen Elizabeth, pretends to agree to Richard’s request, in order to protect her daughter. This requires her to temporarily forget her grief and anger over the death of her sons, in order to protect the living child.



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