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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Can nineteenth-century literature explain the rise of Donald Trump?

Historians and political scientists have quite the task ahead in making sense of the bizarre 2016 presidential race. Fissures in both major parties betray pervasive hostilities. The rise of Donald Trump from investment mogul to television personality to presidential candidate—a process that once horrified GOP insiders—has produced one kind of theater: the spectacle of anger and resentment.

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Illuminating Shakespeare

Death in Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays [quiz]

Mortality is not a theme that Shakespeare shies away from in his works, and in many cases death serves an integral part of a play’s plot. Occasionally his deaths are tragic, others are gruesome and violent, and others are just creative (we’re looking at you, Antigonus), but they play move the play along or resolve its final conflict.

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Desire & sexuality in the work of Émile Zola

The second series of the BBC Radio 4 dramatization of the novels of Émile Zola (Blood, Sex and Money) is just coming to a close. The central theme of the present series is Sex. Sex is all-pervasive in Zola. It encapsulates the themes of desire, pleasure, and perversion; and it is inseparable from Zola’s social themes.

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Émile Zola and the Rougon-Macquart

Listen to, and read a transcript of an interview from Nicola Barringer with Valerie Minogue, translator of Money by Émile Zola, part of the Rougon-Macquart cycle. In the interview, she introduces the Rougon-Macquart, Zola’s epic cycle of twenty novels.

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Tolstoy in art and on film

The portrait of Tolstoy currently on view at London’s National Portrait Gallery as part of the ‘Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky’ exhibition shows the writer sitting at his desk, pen in hand, head bowed. Only six years after Anna Karenina was first published as a complete novel, Tolstoy had already cast aside his career as a professional writer in favour of proselytizing his ethics-based brand of Christianity.

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Illuminating Shakespeare

Disguises and ‘bed-tricks’: Shakespeare’s love of deception [quiz]

Although Shakespeare employed disguises in many of his plays for the sake of comedic effect — take Sir Falstaff dressed as the obese aunt of Mistress Ford’s maid, for example — many more of his characters are entangled in other serious, deceptive plots. The majority of disguises are assumed with the sole purpose of concealing the individual’s true identity, many times for the assurance of his or her safety.

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Yeats, Kipling, and ‘fin-de-siècle malaise’

‘I don’t like disparagement of the Nineties,’ W.B. Yeats told the Oxford classicist Maurice Bowra towards the end of his life. ‘People have built up an impression of a decadent period by remembering only, when they speak of the Nineties, a few writers who had tragic careers. They do this because those writers were confined within the period’. But, as Yeats explained, those who survived the decade and ‘lived to maturity’ were the principal authors today. ‘The Nineties was in reality a period of very great vigour,’ he concluded, ‘thought and passion were breaking free from tradition.’

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War and Peace on screen

I’m 15 years old and I have just thrown up in the lavatory at the movie theater. Shaking too hard to reach the paper towels, I need to hide out there for the entire intermission of the third installment of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic 1967 film adaptation of War and Peace.

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Bookselling and the feminist past

The ‘disappearance’ of booksellers from Hong Kong in recent months reminds us that the free circulation of print can be very directly challenging to the powerful. Within social movements ranging across civil rights, disability, anti-apartheid, socialism, and anti-colonial nationalisms, books, print presses, and bookshops have been central to the movements’ intellectual development and comradeship. The women’s movement has had a similarly close relationship to print; bookshops, periodicals, and presses were a thriving presence within Edwardian women’s suffrage circles.

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Book of the century: The Subjection of Women

In a dynamic demonstration of the motivating power of the written word, a ladies’ literary discussion group read The Subjection of Women in 1883. As soon as they had closed the book, they set up the Finnish Women’s Association to campaign for women in public life. It is not coincidental that in 1906 Finland became the first European country where women had the vote. J.S.Mill’s book is, with Marx’s Capital, one of the two most important political books written in Britain in the nineteenth century.

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Illuminating Shakespeare

Mourning, memory, and performance

There is a wonderful Christopher Rush novel, Will (2007), in which Shakespeare says that what he does best is death: “I do deaths you see. And I can do the deaths of children. Their lips were four red roses on a stalk… – that sort of thing.” From the death of young Rutland in 2 Henry VI to the unexpected death of Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s plays are full of loss.

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Illuminating Shakespeare

A dozen ways to die in Shakespeare’s tragedies [infographic]

In early modern England, social violence and recurring diseases ensured death was a constant presence, so it is only natural to find such a prominent theme in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his tragedies. His characters died at the hands of one another more often than from natural causes, whether stabbing, poisoning, or beheading (or a combination of the three!).

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The Poetic Edda, Game of Thrones, and Ragnarök

Season Six of Game of Thrones is about to air. One of the great pleasures of watching the show is the way in which George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and the show-producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, build their imagined world from the real and imagined structures of medieval history and literature.

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Twenty-first-century Shakespeare

Forever demanding new performers to interpret them for new audiences under new circumstances, and continuing to elicit a rich worldwide profusion of editions, translations, commentaries, adaptations and spin-offs, Shakespeare’s works have never behaved like unchanging monuments about which nothing new remains to be said.

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Cervantes’s pen silenced today

His words still shape our consciousness, even if we fail to read him. This is not due to some hackneyed idealism (“tilting at windmills”), but rather to his pervasive impact on the genre that taught us to think like moderns: the novel. He pioneered the representation of individual subjectivity and aspiration, which today undergirds the construction of agency in any narrative, whether in novels, films, television, or the daily self-fashioning by millions of users of social media.

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Shakespeare’s Not-So Sceptered Isle

In 2012, when the world tuned in for the opening ceremony of London’s Olympic Games, they were witness in part to a performance of one of Shakespeare’s most famed speeches, delivered by one of today’s most revered Shakespearean actors. Kenneth Branagh, dressed as English engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, offered lines from The Tempest in the spirit of the ceremony’s larger theme, “The Isles of Wonder”.

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