Influence Of William Shakespeare English Literature Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this


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The discovery of Shakespeare after short-term oblivion took place in 18th century, among other things due to such writers belonging to various schools as Horace Walpole, Edward Montagu, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Joseph Warton, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. In turn, almost all English romanticists treated Shakespeare with devoted admiration and enthusiastic respect. During creation of Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth considered the plays of Shakespeare perfect due to their metrical organization and alternation of strong passions and common feelings. That is why, according to the lakist, compassion and other resulting in “chaos” emotions caused by Shakespeare’s scenes never cross the “bounds of pleasure”1. Besides, Wordsworth emphasized that he used the poetical form himself because “more pathetic situations and sentiments, that is, those which have a greater proportion of pain connected with them, may be endured in metrical composition, especially in rhyme, than in prose” [1] . In Wordsworth’s eyes, Shakespeare also used this peculiar method of ordering of deep feelings and thoughts of audience with the help of poetry. Contrasting fantasies with imaginations, the romanticist, following Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illustrates great involuntarily changing essence of imagination with the help of quotation from “King Lear” (Lear’s addressing to heaven: “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness; / I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children” III, 2).

The own “Gothic” drama of Wordsworth “The Borderers” (1796) with the peculiar philosophical polemics with William Godwin may be considered another one example of Shakespeare’s influence on Romantic theatre. According to Bill Thierfelder “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” has the direct similarity to the famous Prospero’s monologue in “The Tempest” (V, I) [2] . However, at the same time, according to the true finding of John Keats, Wordsworth was rather John Milton’s than Shakespeare’s pupil and follower.

Another situation is found during the analysis of works of William Blake. His invariable inspirers and “teachers” were equally both Shakespeare and Milton. In fact, Blake’s poetry abounds in mythological, biblical and literary reminiscences. There are especially many Shakespeare’s lines in the collection of poems “Poetical Sketches” (1783). For example, ‘Mad Song’ was evoked by touching monologues of Edgar from “King Lear”, ‘Blind-man’s Buff’ imitates the fragment from “Love’s Labour’s Lost” comedy (V, 2). Adoption from “Henry IV” (I, 1) may be noticed in ‘Gwin, King of Norway’ ballad. One of the poems of “The Rossetti Manuscript” is called “Merlin’s Prophecy” and undoubtedly sends the reader back to saying of Fool in “King Lear” (III, 2). In whole, the motives of struggle against tyranny and, at the same time, compassion for wretched, unfortunate persons, which were important for Shakespeare, were close to Blake as well. The romanticist also uses humour in reflection of difficult social issues, the peculiar mixing of tragic and comic principles in lyric poetry evoked by Shakespeare (poem “Blind-man’s Buff” easily and in comic form explains the necessity to make changes in politics and legislation; “pseudo-benefactors” of the fatherland are ridiculed in the poem “An Island in the Moon” with the help of the quotation from “Hamlet”). Blake also created several illustrations to Shakespeare’s works (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Macbeth”).

However, one of the most consistent admirers of Shakespeare’s talent is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. From 1808 to 1819, the stated romanticist publishes lectures about Shakespeare, which were fated not only to cause the keen interest of contemporaries, but also to leave the brightest mark in the history of Romantic criticism. Coleridge notes the depth of Shakespeare’s philosophical thought and moral influence, as well as the natural discrepancy of characters created by him. According to Coleridge, Hamlet has an outstanding inner world and the richest imagination, and that is why he does not see sense in real, volitional actions. A quotation from Shakespeare illustrates main aesthetic definitions advanced by Coleridge in lectures: imagination as the main way of cognition, mechanical and organic form of poetry, particular qualities of the poet and dramatist (talent for endless transformation). In Coleridge’s opinion, Shakespeare personifies the summit of “dramatic imagination”, while Milton is the greatest representative of “egocentric” poetry. A researcher Lee K. D. proves that Coleridge’s numerous notes about Shakespeare form an integral and considered system [3] . Even private remarks of Coleridge about Shakespeare’s plays, in particular about great tragedies of Elizabethan, are innovative. It should be noted that unconditional compliance with Shakespeare’s traditions, which became apparent already in the early play “Osorio” (1797), reveals much brighter in two mature tragedies of Coleridge: in the revision of the first drama called by a poet “Remorse” (1812), and in “Zapolya” (1815) [4] . The tragedy about medieval Spain “Remorse”, developing the “Gothic” tradition in addition to Shakespeare’s one, has two heroes: noble Alvar and his “demonic” brother Ordonio being the embodiment of many cruel Machiavellian heroes of Shakespeare.

Walter Scott values, first of all, the impartial representation of life and human characters in the “mighty wizard” Shakespeare. However, in his “Essay on the Drama” (1819), Scott argues that Shakespeare’s works were formed by the specificity of his historical era, and that is why, a modern dramatist should not follow his delusions. The romanticist himself, despite his admiration for the culture of 18th century, developed Shakespeare’s traditions, at the same time, using his thoughts and images in the pages of his works. Being the friend of the actor John Philip Kemble, the performer of Shakespeare’s roles, Scott writes verse “Mr. Kemble’s Farewell Address” (1817) devoted to his last play (“Macbeth”). It is possible to find fifteen allusions to Shakespeare’s texts in the novel “Old Mortality” (1816). About ten allusions to Shakespeare’s heroes (Pistol, Poins, Hal, Cassio, Malvolio) and episodes expressing “extremely strong” feelings [5] may be found in the novel “Rob Roy” (1817). Seventeen quotations from different Shakespeare’s plays are singled out in “Quentin Durward” (1823). Selecting epigraphs and allusions, the romanticist showed the biggest interest in historical chronicles, as well as in plays “Julius Caesar”, “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, and “The Tempest”. According to the assertion of Nina Diakonova, Scott’s novels represent, “after Shakespeare’s chronicles, the integral panoramas of the epoch in active interaction of opposite interests” [6] . The composition of his prose works, in accordance with Shakespeare’s tradition, is subject to comprehensive, multifaceted representation of reality with its incompatible and contrasting principles both in social and in psychological respects. The historical novel (with features of folk ballad, moral, Gothic and psychological novels) “The Bride of Lammermoor” (1819) based on Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” may be an example. At the same time, Scott evaluates the skills of poets and novelists of the previous centuries (Milton, Dryden, Fielding) from the point of view of their proximity to Shakespeare, to his invariable fidelity to nature.

George Gordon Byron, who left not great number of critical works, turns to Shakespeare in his poetic works not so often – he mentions some his heroes and quotes him in epigraphs and in texts (“English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, “Manfred”, “Beppo”, “Don Juan” – about 28 allusions and reminiscences from different Shakespeare’s works, which is the “record” even for romantic poem, may be found in the latter). Byron is, first of all, the creator of philosophical drama, in which the strong personality is inactive and thinks over the most important problems of modern times. There is no doubt that French classical theatre of the eighteenth century met Byron’s literary tastes more than Shakespeare’s drama. This is confirmed by his three “classical” tragedies written in 1820-1821, as well as the letter to John Murray dated July 14, 1821 and Byron’s restrained review about Shelley’s tragedy “The Cenci”, which, according to Byron, followed “the worst example” – Shakespeare’s plays. However, it is already possible to find some echoes from “Hamlet”, “Macbeth” and “The Tempest” in his “Manfred” (1817). The verse novel “Don Juan” (1818-1823) has seven allusions to “Hamlet”, five quotations from “Macbeth”, “Henry IV” was paraphrased tree times, and there are two allusions to “Othello” and “Julius Caesar” in it. At the same time, Byron not just uses the familiar to readers “shakespearism”, but in his own way explains and comments it in the satirical spirit of his final, closing poem. Walter Scott noted the endless “Shakespeare’s diversity” of “Don Juan” [7] . According to the opinion of

N. Diakonova, « Shakespearean was the mixing of terrible and funny, high and base, prose and poetic in Byron’s poem. <...> Byron’s heroes and heroines bear the mark of the greatness of spirit, self-abandonment and internal complication, typical for the famous Shakespeare’s characters. Even in the classical “The Age of Bronze” satire (1823), Byron portrays mighty and contradictory image of Napoleon, similar to great villains and ambitious men of Shakespeare’s tragedies» [8] .

In 1966, an English Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight published monograph “Byron and Shakespeare”. In ten chapters of this research, the scholar examines the reception of the very important plots of Shakespeare in diaries, letters and works of the romanticist. For example, in the fifth chapter, Knight speaks about the considerable influence of gloomy scenes, images, ideas of “Richard III” and “Macbeth” on Byron. The researcher draws a parallel between Macbeth and Manfred, and finds the scene (XIV, 5, 6) in “Don Juan” describing the same mood of the hero, which Macbeth had before murder. Thus, it is possible to say that despite his statements, Byron solved difficult philosophical tasks using Shakespeare’s ideas and aphorisms at least in two his poems (“Manfred”, “Don Juan”). Besides, the interest in the problem of Shakespeare’s influence on Byron’s works has recently considerably increased [9] .

The system of aesthetic views of John Keats is closely connected with William Hazlitt’s attitudes to literature. Hazlitt, in turn, carried on the critical tradition of Wordsworth and Coleridge and affirmed that Shakespeare’s works embody “human wisdom and absolute cognition” (“Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays”, 1817) [10] . According to Hazlitt and Keats, Shakespeare’s images elevate our soul not because they directly enunciate moral truths, but because their inner beauty and natural truthfulness. It is typical of Keats’ aesthetics to identify truth with beauty and to glorify inner essence, “subject” [11] of poetry, which “should be great & unobtrusive”. At the same time, Keats stated that “the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth” [12] . The romanticist considered that “King Lear” is brightest example of such literary work having the great emotional influence together with the intellectual one.

According to Keats, poetry must not prove or dispute anything, but should share an accidentally discovered wisdom with a reader. In his letters to friends, Keats, always quoting Shakespeare (p.239 – O for a Muse of fire to ascend [Henry V, Prologue]), confessed that the main principle of his poetry is to “surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity – it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own thoughts.”, [13] thus the reader should find his own noble intentions in it. However, the most original idea of Keats was the thesis about

the camelion Poet formulated in October 1818 (a letter to Richard Woodhouse) and illustrated by Shakespeare’s works.(p.387, also: quotes from Troilus and Cressida) As far back as December 1817, in the letter to his brothers, Keats noted the distinctive feature of Shakespeare and other writers of genius: all of them must have “Negative Capability”, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason<...>with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather oblitarates all consideration” [14] . Keats assures that the real poet is devoid of own individuality and any interests, choices, tastes; he looks at the world without passion until he finds the new object for transformation.

The idea of “Negative Capability” of the poet, as well as some traditions of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Keats’ works were quite thoroughly studied by the American researcher Amy Leal in the dissertation of 2005 [15] . According to the generally accepted view of friends, Keats was the connoisseur of Shakespeare’s works and as far back as 1817 he purchased seven volumes of his dramatic works; [16] his last sonnet “Bright Star” Keats wrote during his trip to Italy on the free page of his Shakespeare’s volume. According to opinion of Russian critics (Nina Diakonova), many works of Keats are inspired by Renaissance literature, especially by the works of Dante, Boccaccio and Shakespeare. For example, the poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” (1819) was evoked by the images of the tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. However, if Shakespeare gave psychological individualization to the characters, then Keats creates abstract images being afire with passion. The verse “On death” contains reflections close to the famous Hamlet’s monologue about purpose of life.

In co-authorship with his friend Charles Armitage Brown, Keats creates the tragedy about conflict between the emperor and his son “Otto the Great” (1819), which, despite many adoptions from Shakespeare, does not represent difficult characters and conflicts [17] . Despite the clear reference to Milton’s works (similarity between the first book of the poem and the first part of “Paradise Lost”) in Keats’ poem “Hyperion” (1820), the Shakespeare’s tradition is also seen in it. For example, mentioning of the fact that the great goddess Theia could “with a finger stay”, [18] Ixion’s fiery wheel directly correlates with statement of King Lear about his own “fiery” wheel (IV, 7). Besides, Saturn’s sister in Keats’ poem with her touching sympathy for overthrow brother resembles Cordelia compassionating her sad father. At the same time, the persuasive speech addressed to Hyperion in Keats’ poem contains exhortation not to bow down to the load of destiny, but to resist with proud the unfair attacks of villains. This monologue of the spectral voice character reminds of the symbolic speech of the shadow of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s tragedy (“Hamlet”; I, 5).

Not only recognized masters of English Romantic literature mused on Shakespeare, less significant writers of that period and school did this as well. One of the “London romanticists” Charles Lamb created the tragedy in the vein of the great dramatist “John Woodvil” (1802) and “Tales from Shakespeare” (1807) for children. According to Lamb, Shakespeare has the astonishing intellect, the profound understanding of human characters, the free way to represent common sufferings and misfortune. At the same time, Lamb argues that in order to correctly understand Shakespeare’s poetic images, it is necessary to read his great tragedies, not to watch their representation on the stage. The same opinion was also stated by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the author of drama for reading “Faust”. Goethe considered that Shakespeare’s works are not for “bodily eyes”. In fact, the interest of English romanticists to Shakespeare reflected in various researches of his works is one of the urgent topics of literary investigations. The great research on romantic criticism of Shakespeare and its similarity to the theories of “feedback from readers” of 20th century (Wolfgang Iser, Stefan Fisch, Hans Robert Jauss) was carried out by the British philologist Younglim Han [19] . The diverse, contradictory influence of poems, sonnets and all Shakespeare’s dramas on Romantic literature of Great Britain in modern science is almost beyond doubt [20] . Both older (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge) and younger (Byron, Shelley, Keats) generation of English romanticists left brave and original interpretations of his images, opinions and dramatic situations. The greatest author of romantic prose Walter Scott, both in his diaries, articles and in historical novels also paid tribute to the Renaissance dramatist. At the same time, each romanticist, except for Byron, notes those ideas and principles of representation of reality in Shakespeare’s works, which he considers the most valuable for his own works.

The genre freedom of Shakespeare, which finds expression in mixing of tragic and comic, ordinary and expressive, real and fantastic; the composition principle of contrasts and parallels; the philosophical generalization concerning conflicts between human and society, will and destiny, time and eternity, art and nature; bringing of titanically strong, but doomed to tragic plight heroes with the developed psychological insight to the stage, and, finally, expressive, metaphorical language of Shakespeare, which enriched drama poetically, appear to be extremely important for English romanticists.

1.2. Shakespeare in Shelley’s works: letters, poetry, prose

The works of Percy Bysshe Shelley have the special line of succession, which continues the rich tradition of Shakespeare. The earliest poem of Shelley was called by the name of mythological image mentioned by Shakespeare in “Romeo and Juliet” tragedy (I, 4). It is the Celtic Queen Mab, which, according to the Mercutio’s words and to the popular ideas, gives birth to dreams. At the same time, the dreams from Mercutio’s speech are the result of a fantasy; and despite the fact that they are changeable as a wind, in whole, they reflect spiritual and social differences between dreamers (Mercutio gives the dreams of lovers, courtiers, lawyers, women, priests, and warriors as an example). The power of the fabulous queen being able to evoke the most different dreams, made Shelley to create the first philosophical poem “Queen Mab” (1813) with its deep sociopolitical analysis of English society. It is known that Shelley was going to preface this poem with epigraph from Shakespeare [21] .

The ‘modern eclogue’ of Shelley “Rosalind and Helen” (1818) narrates about two uncommon women, in the names and personal qualities of which it is easy to see parallels to some Shakespeare’s heroines having bright individuality and courage (in comedies “As You Like It”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, All’s Well That Ends Well”, etc.). In turn, one of the peak poems of Shelley “Adonais” (1821) may be compared with Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis” to some extent (in connection with the choice of one mythological subject and with passionate glorifying of the fallen young man).

It is known that in 1814, George Gordon Byron kept the journal, in which he wrote down his attitude to main political events of the time. The romanticist gave the estimate to Napoleon’s abdication and to the restoration of French monarchy in it, commenting his inauspicious conclusions with the help of quotations from Shakespeare’s tragedies (“Hamlet”, “King Lear”, “Macbeth”). In turn, in his letters, diaries and articles, Shelley was also inclined to explain the most important for him issues in literature, family and politics with the timeless phrases of the great Elizabethan. In order to determine those Shakespeare’s plays, which could influence Shelley’s works, it is necessary to find out which of them and when, for what reason, were quoted by the romanticist. Thus, it addition to determination of the borrowed text, the name and genre of a play, time of quoting and the context are the especially important aspects.

In November 1811, in his letter to Elizabeth Hitchener, Shelley paraphrases one line from Shakespeare’s chronicle “Henry VIII”. At the same time, the letter of Shelley to Thomas Charles Medwin explaining the sad necessity to ask for money is adorned by quotation from “Romeo and Juliet” tragedy (V, 1): “My poverty, and not my will consents” [22] . In the book called “History of a Six Weeks’ Tour” based on the diary and the letters of young Shelley couple, an interesting mentioning of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” comedy appears. The letter to Thomas Love Peacock dated July 12, 1816 informs about the staying of the family in the neighborhood of Lake Geneva, where the poet admired “these purple and misty waters broken by the craggy islets near to its slant and « beached margin  [23] . In this case, Shelley paraphrased the words of Titania from the dialogue with Oberon, when the queen of the fairies argued with her husband about changeling child (II, 1). Titania complained to her husband of his groundless jealousy, which prevents fairies “To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind” in the beached margent of the sea. It should be reminded that Shelley’s nickname, and sometimes pseudonym, was the name “Knight of fairies”. At the same time, the enchanting atmosphere of the lake described in the novel of Jean-Jacques Rousseau “New Heloise” suggested Byron and Shelley an idea of happy serenity, natural beauty of idyllic landscape and, together with the great comedies of Shakespeare, inspired to create new literary masterpieces.

In 1817, Shelley attended the staging of “Richard The Second” with his good friend and poet Leigh Hunt. According to Hunt, during the performance, Shelley repeated the phrase he liked from the chronicle several times: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings. “Shelley was fond of quoting a passage <...> in which the king gives fantastic expression to his misery” [24] . In April 1818, Shelley and his wife watched the ballet with Rossini’s music “Othello” in Milan, which “was the most splendid spectacle I ever saw” from those he had ever seen, and which, despite his expectations, “left no disagreeable impression” [25] at all. The poem “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills” (October 1818) includes quatrain glorifying the “divinest Shakespeare’s might”, which “fills Avon and the world with light”  (196-199). This panegyric was included into the poem in order to draw a parallel with another English writer, the contemporary of Shelley – George Gordon Byron.

It is known that the first collection of William Wordsworth included the poem about poetic inspiration named “Expostulation and reply” (1798), which stated about the necessity of sensitive observation of nature for a poet. Shelley’s poem about poet’s destination “An Exhortation” (1819), published for the first time with “Prometheus Unbound”, probably, refers a reader to Hamlet’s words. Answering the question of Claudius “How fares our cousin Hamlet?” , the prince answers: “Excellent, I’ faith; of the chameleon’s dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed: you cannot feed capons so…” (“Hamlet”; III, 2). These words were said before the “Mouse-trap”, that is before unmasking of criminal planned by the hero, when the “universal” intellect of Hamlet makes him to create his own play [26] .

It is possible to find some works devoted to the subject of Hamlet-chameleon among the recent American researches of Shelley’s works. First, it is the article of Blank, G. Kim “Hamlet, Shelley, and the Air-Eating Chameleon” [27] ; second, the research of David Thatcher “Shakespeare and Shelley’s Chameleons” [28] . However, the conclusions about Shakespeare’s tradition set forth below were made regardless of the earlier articles, and the coincidence of subjects confirms their importance and topicality. In the end of Shelley’s drama “Prometheus Unbound” the Moon says to the happy, “fraternal” Earth, about “Drinking from thy sense and sight / Beauty, majesty, and might” (IV, 481-487).

If Hamlet eats, like a chameleon, the court air and empty promises, then the Moon “As a lover or a chameleon”, grows from everything around, from blessed changes of the Earth and world. Comparison of the Moon, having the features of Prometheus, with two similar creatures, losing their interest in common food is, undoubtedly, the allusion to the early Shakespeare’s comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona”. The first scene of the second act is finished by the words of the clownish servant to Valentine: “though the chameleon Love can feed on the air, I am one that am nourished by my victuals, and would fain have meat”. [29] (lines 167-169). Again, as afterwards in “Prometheus Unbound”, there is the peculiar comparison between love (or a person in love) and undemanding chameleon. In Shelley’s drama, the Moon, like the Love, does not need common food: the beauty and the force of the Earth, as well as the azure sky inspire the satellite with immense energy and joy. Thus, in the golden age of general harmony, the Moon becomes the chameleon near the beautiful Earth. Besides, the Moon is compared this way due to its unique quality to reflect sunlight: like a chameleon changing its colour, it obtains the light from outside and assumes it.

According to Shelley, the same qualities are peculiar to the real poet and literature as a whole: his activity must remain unselfish at all times. “Refuse the boon! [30] “(line 27) – Shelley gives this advice to a beginning poet, “children of a sunnier star, /Spirits from beyond the moon” in the poem “An Exhortation”. The poet affirms that if the bright chameleon chooses any food but beams and wind, he would lose his exclusiveness, heavenly chosenness and would become a lizard. It’s amazing how this Shelley’s poem resembles the image of the camelion [chameleon] Poet from the letters of Keats, who, almost the same time (October 1818) declared about denial of his own individuality and face as the indispensable condition for the development of poetic gift, like Shakespeare’s one [31] . Originality of a poet (being represented by the Moon, the Love, Chameleon and, following Shakespeare’s tradition, Hamlet) is in simple tastes, in denial of earthly pleasures, of admiration and gratitude. Here appears the important idea of Shelley about the fact that the real poet is able to live in Spartan conditions and endure severe trials, as his state of mind is peculiar: a poet is not attached to the earth as other people, he strives for heaven, for the dream.

The chameleon eating light and air, according to the ideas of the Renaissance, is the symbol of triumph of spirituality in Shelley’s work. It also should be noted that Shelley constructed his poem, which was created in the year of his best two dramas (1819), about destination and obligations of a poet on the mysterious statement of Hamlet, probably, with the purpose of declaring veiledly and secretly about the one person considered by him as the real, incorruptible poet. Shakespeare, by using the metaphorical phrase before the important scene of the tragedy, gave cause for Shelley to make the conclusion about the difference of the great talented artist from other people. Thus, the world must not be surprised by the constant fickleness of “creators”: hesitations of delicate poets in their search of at least a drop of love on “cold earth” become their single protection from the surrounding world. It is possible to say that the metaphor of “sublime” chameleon in the analyzed works combines the images with little in common: Shakespeare’s heroes Hamlet and Valentine appear to be close to the images of the Love (or a person in love), happy Moon and Poetry (a poet) in Shelley. Being the symbol of never-ending changes, the attribute of logic, eloquence and wisdom in antiquity, the chameleon lizard, in accordance with Hamlet’s words, became the indication of the secret of poetic mastery and inspiration for Shelley.

In turn, the note about Shakespeare’s 111 sonnet was found in manuscript “The Cenci” (1819). Apparently, Shelley seriously thought about it in the indicated time. Besides, it is known that Shelley wanted (the letter of July 1819 to Thomas Love Peacock [32] ) the role of Francesco Cenci to be played by the actor Edmund Kean, considered the best Macbeth, Richard III and Othello in English stage of the 19th century. It is espec

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