Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Holding a Mirror up to Hamlet

It was the worst of plays; it was the best of plays

Hamlet is either the best play ever written or the worst, depending on your perspective. I have, at different times, held both opinions. T.S. Eliot was very critical of the play and of critics of the play. Ultimately he was categorical that “the play is most certainly an artistic failure” (Hamlet and His Problems. T.S. Eliot. 1921. The Sacred Wood; Essays on Poetry and Criticism).

The problem of many Hamlets

Eliot reminds us that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a “revised” version of earlier Hamlets, most notably one by Kyd—and Eliot seems convinced that the play is inferior for this among other reasons. Eliot also points out the tendency of “creative critics” (he mentions Coleridge and Goethe) to imagine a Hamlet character rather than the one actually in the play. Hamlet is so vague and inscrutable that the character invites speculation, confabulation and imaginative interpretations of his “true” nature.  Hamlet is a young man's play--at least, that's when it spoke most deeply to me.  Suicide is a young man's disease--the second leading cause of death in the 15-to-35-year-old age group behind accidents, but a lot of accidental deaths could easily be interpreted as suicides.  "To be or not to be" is bound to have purchase with this age and gender.

Hamnet and depression

In Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd suggests that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in a fit of depression over the death of his 11-year-old son, Hamnet. I see lots of evidence in the play to support this view. When you stop to consider, as objectively as one can, the various elements of the play, it turns out to be incredibly self-indulgent. 

Hamlet:  the model not to follow

If you were giving a play-writing course and wanted a model to show students how not to write a play, Hamlet would work. We teachers of English are accustomed to referring to "Hamlet's procrastination," but what about Shakespeare's procrastination?  "Come on, Will, get to the point!" The play is too long, the mood is morose, meandering and depressive, the plot travels all over the place (literally) without any sense of direction (Eliot suggests it was written by a committee), the playwright (through his central character) criticizes the audience (the Globe theatre smells foul) and actors (they tear an emotional line to shreds).

Holding a mirror up to Hamlet

 It amazes me that Shakespeare uses the play to give fairly condescending instructions to actors. It amazes me even more that in the typical production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directors don’t seem to know what Hamlet’s instructions about “holding a mirror up to nature” mean. The allusion is to Renaissance painters who used mirrors as a trick to get the proportions right in large scene painting. The instructions are "don’t exaggerate the emotions" and "maintain perspective," but still I’ve seen Hamlet writhing on the floor over and over again in paroxysms of emotions in both amateur and professional productions. On the other hand, in this play, the playwright didn’t seem to follow his own advice either.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the   [enunciate, don't mumble]
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air [don't shout]
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; [no excessive gestures]
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it [understate emotions]
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who [don't shout, then Shakespeare/Hamlet insults the audience]
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it. [overdoing exaggerated characters]
First Player
I warrant your honour.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o'erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is  [don't exaggerate]
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the [maintain perspective, get the proportions right, as they are in nature, "nature" here means in the neoclassical sense]
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful [overdone is lowbrow]
laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the
censure of the which one must in your allowance
o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be
players that I have seen play, and heard others
praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely,
that, neither having the accent of Christians nor
the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of
nature's journeymen had made men and not made them
well, they imitated humanity so abominably. [act normally; in short, avoid exaggeration, avoid excess in volume, manner and gesture]

Thursday 23 November 2017

Test Question: How Did Romeo Respond When He Was Told He Will Be Having Sex with Juliet?

The Plan for Romeo and Juliet to consummate their marriage

When the Nurse explained the plan—a rope ladder, “the cords,” would be placed from Juliet’s bedroom, “the highway to her bed,” so that Romeo and Juliet could have sex and thereby consummate their marriage—Romeo responded by saying “bid my sweet prepare to chide.”

What does "to chide" mean?

I’ve never been fully confident that I understood this line.  What does “to chide” mean in this context?  Why should Juliet “prepare to chide”?

I’ve never seen the line analyzed or glossed, but it is the pivotal moment in the drama. Up to this point, alternatives are possible.  The marriage has not been consummated and can be easily annulled.  Juliet still could marry Paris, and Romeo find another Rosalind or Juliet. Or Romeo and Juliet could announce that they have married and accept the ire of their families and banishment.  Their marriage might, as Friar Lawrence planned all along, put an end to the enmity between their families and soften the Prince against banishment.  This is the point of no return—a secret marriage followed by a clandestine consummation and a cloak-and-dagger plan for resurrection and return—and this is the line which marks the point of no return:  “bid my sweet prepare to chide.”

The dictionary definition of "to chide"

The dictionary definition of “to chide” is “to scold or rebuke” and the word is used elsewhere in the play with this meaning, but what could Romeo possibly mean by saying “Juliet should prepare to scold or rebuke”?  From the context of the dialogue, we would expect Romeo to say something like “Juliet should prepare to be my lover” or some more poetic Shakespearian equivalent.  Basically, in the simplest of terms, he must be saying “tell her to prepare to have sex.”  But why does he say it this way or, more to the point, why does Shakespeare have him say it this way?  

Shakespeare's pun on chide/chafe

I have long suspected that “to chide” was, in this context, a pun suggesting “to chafe.”  Finding this web page which compares “to chide” and “to chafe” <>, my suspicions were confirmed, my prophecy fulfilled.   The verb “to chafe” means “to excite heat by friction; to rub in order to stimulate and make warm.”  More telling for our purposes, Shakespeare uses “to chafe” and “to chide” in ways that bring their meanings close together.  For example, compare:

“the troubled Tiber chafing with her shores”  from Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar


As doth a rock against the chiding flood” from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII

Disambiguating the Shakespeare pun

When we disambiguate Shakespeare’s pun, what we get is Romeo saying “tell Juliet to prepare to chafe and chide”—or, in a modern vernacular, something equivalent to “tell her to get ready to grind and moan.”  It is also worthwhile to consider to whom Romeo is addressing himself, the Nurse who introduces herself in the play with the opening line “by my maidenhead at twelve years old,” the personification of all things earthy.  Since Juliet is a virgin we know that she is about to lose her maidenhead and will consequently experience some pain—giving her reason to “chide” in the sense of complaint. 

Romeo revealed

At this moment we would expect Romeo to say something tender and poetic, but instead he now reminds us of Samson and Gregory, the two young men bragging and joking about their sexual intentions—deflowering virgins—and prowess at the beginning of the play. Shakespeare uses this moment to signal the raw and vulgar intentions underlying Romeo’s endless professions of love. To put it brusquely in a contemporary vernacular, the line signals that Romeo is a horny teenager declaring “tell Juliet to prepare to be humped.”

Comic Romeo and tragic Juliet

The scene is almost comic in that Romeo, who has been literally lying on the floor moaning and groaning in despair, suddenly recovers himself at the announcement that he will be having sex with Juliet.  It is a common observation that the tragedy starts out as if it were a comedy.  The film Shakespeare in Love explains this incongruity by having Shakespeare’s financial backer insisting that he wants a comedy.  In fact, Shakespeare did write the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream at about the same time he was writing Romeo and Juliet, and both plays are based on the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Renaissance tragedy is usually about masculinity

The play is also anomalous as a tragedy because the central tragic figure is a woman, more extraordinary still, a teenage girl.  Juliet is the individual who faces a profound, no-win, double-bind dilemma which is the mark of all the touchstones of tragedy. Elizabethan and early Jacobean tragedy is almost invariably about masculinity, about men proving that they are men and the dilemmas that process provokes.  Modern interpretations and productions of Romeo and Juliet tend to focus so narrowly on the love story of the balcony scene, notice is barely taken of Romeo’s transition from boyhood to manhood which runs parallel to the tragedy of Juliet’s dilemma and suicide.  By tradition, there are but two distinctly masculine values—bravery and virility—which we might translate into the modern vernacular as fighting and fucking.  The initiation process in which a boy becomes a man by encountering death and his first sexual experience can be found throughout tribal ritual and the history of literature in English.  

Who killed Paris?

Another test question:  Who killed Paris?  Answer:  Romeo.  This scene is sometimes omitted in modern versions of the play, but for Elizabethan audiences this scene was confirmation that Romeo was no longer a boy.  In the few short days of the play’s duration, he had become a man.  When Romeo meets Paris at the opening of the mausoleum where Juliet  lies unconscious, he calls Paris “a boy” and tells him to stand aside.  When Paris refuses, Romeo kills him with a perfunctory stab of his dagger (the same dagger Juliet will later use to kill herself).  Only as an afterthought does Romeo stop to wonder who the boy was that he had just killed.  That Romeo is no longer a boy and now a man cannot be questioned.

The author as father of a 13-year-old changes the interpretation

Interpretations of the play as singularly a celebration of love can only survive by ignoring much of what is in the text, so much of which can be read as Shakespeare's playing to the expectations of his audience, on one hand, and on the other, as a warning from Shakespeare to his own thirteen-year-old daughter about the lure and the danger of passionate young love.

Monday 13 November 2017

Why Did Shakespeare Make Juliet Thirteen Years Old?

"I might've fallen for that when I was fourteen and a little more greenBut it's amazing what a couple of years can mean "

                                                Avril Lavinge's  "Nobody's Fool"

Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?

Whenever I lectured on Romeo and Juliet, I always started by asking “Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?”  As I fielded answers from students they generally fell into two broad categories.

In Shakespeare's time, people married young.  Not really.

Category 1: “People in Shakespeare’s time married young.”  Actually, they didn’t.  Shakespeare himself was 18 when he married Anne Hathaway who was 26 and pregnant with their first child, Susanna, but Shakespeare needed permission from his father to marry at such a young age.  Shakespeare’s own daughters, Susanna and Judith, were married at 24 and 31 respectively.  

Our ideas of English girls’ marrying at thirteen (or younger) being common practice was likely provoked by infamous cases of royal betrothals.  For example, Mary Queen of Scots was sent to France to marry Francis, the Dauphin, when she was six.  She married him when she was sixteen and he was fourteen—he died three years later.  In 1480, ten-year-old Prince Edward was betrothed to the four-year-old daughter of Francis II, Duke of Brittany.  (According to another Shakespeare play, young Edward was murdered by his uncle, Richard III.) Such marriages were entirely intended to forge political alliances and tell us little or nothing about common attitudes concerning the appropriate age for marriage. Best estimates are that attitudes, though relative to life expectancy, were not wildly different in Shakespeare’s time from those of today.

The real Juliet was thirteen

Category 2.  “The ‘real Juliet’ was thirteen.”  Tourists visiting Verona today will be invited to see the balcony purported to be the one where Romeo proposed to Juliet.  That a “real Juliet” ever existed is doubtful.  The age of the woman who might have inspired the “Romeo and Juliet” story, if such a woman ever existed, is shrouded in a deeper level of the unknown.  

Sources for the Romeo and Juliet story

Juliet is twenty-one in the Italian version of the story.  In the narrative poem in English by Arthur Brooke, THE TRAGICALL HISTORY OF ROMEUS AND JULIET, which is generally accepted to be Shakespeare’s source for the story, Juliet is sixteen.

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life

The question remains: Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  I would invariably tell students that the answer was quite obvious, and once they saw the answer they would better understand the play.  Imagine my surprise, shock and even dismay, reading Bill Bryson (who happens to be one of my favourite writers these days) who claims in At Home:  A Short History of Private Life that the reason Shakespeare made Juliet thirteen years old “is, like most of what Shakespeare did, unknowable” (397).

Shakespeare had a 13-year-old daughter

Unknowable?  Granted some inference is required, but in this case it is more a matter of arithmetic than literary theory.  Romeo and Juliet, the first quarto, was published in 1597—we can reasonably surmise that it was written and first performed around this time.  Shakespeare’s daughter was born on May 26, 1583.  1597-1583 = 14!  Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  Because from May, 1596 to May, 1597, when he was writing the play, he had a thirteen-year-old daughter.

Shakespeare was obsessed with father-daughter relationships

As Peter Ackroyd points out in Shakespeare: A Biography, the relationship of “father and daughter” was one of Shakespeare’s “most enduring preoccupations” (449): Polonius and Ophelia, Shylock and Jessica, Lear and Cordelia, Brabantio and Desdemona, Baptista and Katherine, Duke Senior and Rosalind, Duke Frederick and Celia, to mention but a few.  (For more see

Typically, Shakespeare portrays these relationships as troubled and casts the fathers in an unflattering light.  The one extraordinary exception to this rule is Shakespeare’s last complete play, The Tempest, in which Miranda’s father, Prospero, has magical powers with which to grant his daughter her every wish and happiness.

In Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet, we see Capulet firmly defending his daughter against an early marriage on the grounds that “too soon marred are those so early made.”  However, by Act III the political climate has obviously changed.  Although never explained in the play we are left to infer that a marriage to a relative of the Prince has become politically exigent, as Capulet now threatens to disown Juliet and abandon her in the street if she doesn’t “get to church o’ Thursday” to marry Paris.

Shakespeare drops lots of hints that he is thinking about Susanna

Shakespeare makes the age thirteen a repeated discussion in the play, and if we need an additional hint that he was thinking of his own thirteen-year-old daughter,  Susanna, he introduces the name Susan—somewhat tangentially—into the dialogue about Juliet’s age.

She is not fourteen. How long is it now
To Lammas-tide?

Lady Capulet:
A fortnight and odd days.

Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.
Susan and she--God rest all Christian souls!--
Were of an age: well, Susan is with God;
She was too good for me: but, as I said,
On Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.*

Shakespeare's spelling of names was always approximate (including his own)

If “Susan” and “Susanna” strike you as completely different names consider, as Bryson points out in Shakespeare:  The World as Stage, in extant documents, Shakespeare never spelt his name the same way twice.  Ackroyd among others is categorical that “Hamlet” is a variation of the spelling of “Hamnet”—the name of Shakespeare’s son who died at age eleven.  And, of course, if  Shakespeare was following the Brooke poem he should have called his eponymous hero “Romeus” not “Romeo.”  In short, precision in the spelling of names was not part of Shakespearian culture.  The dialogue above explicitly tells us that “Susan”—a name we can reasonably surmise that Shakespeare called his own daughter—if she were in the play, would be thirteen.  How much of a wink and a nod do we need?

The theme of Romeo and Juliet is haste

Once the idea that the author was the father of a thirteen-year-old daughter takes hold, it becomes impossible to view the play as anything other than a cautionary tale about the risks of succumbing to enflamed passions, of rushing to hasty judgments, solutions and actions.  Haste, in a word, is the theme of the play—and haste, in the play, invariably leads to disaster.

Haste equals disaster

Mention of the play invariably brings to mind the “balcony scene” but, in context, Romeo and Juliet knew no more than these few minutes of happiness in the entirety of the play.  From beginning to end in the play, their lives were replete with unrelieved anxiety, conflict, and sadness.  Even the consummation of their marriage is unable to alleviate the newfound misery of their existence as they immediately imagine each other “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.”

Every major character in the play is guilty of haste

Romeo and Juliet provide the most poignant example but, in this play, every agent acts in haste and shares in the guilt of the disasters it provokes.  The passionate hatred between the Capulets and Montagues provides the ambiance for the drama, but the underlying folly of haste is repeated by each of the characters in turn.  Tybalt is an icon of choler—boundless, unruled, passionate anger.  Mercutio, as his name suggests, is mercurial.  Even the Prince is hasty in his declaration that any Capulet or Montague caught fighting in the streets will be put to death, and must retract his declaration when Romeo kills Tybalt.  Paris pushes to marry thirteen-year-old Juliet and is supported in his haste by Lady Capulet and the Nurse.  Capulet at first resists this haste, then becomes its most egregious provocateur when he threatens Juliet with abandonment if she refuses to marry in two days' time.  The tragedy could not have occurred without the active, ill-conceived, precipitous participation of the Nurse and Friar Lawrence.

Friar Lawrence is ultimately responsible for the tragedy

Friar Lawrence is the play’s raisonneur, providing the underlying ratiocination of the entire drama that “they stumble who run fast.” In other words, he is the author’s mouthpiece telling us that this play is about haste, but he is also the worst example of the haste which he platitudinously opposes. He marries Romeo and Juliet, then proposes that Romeo consummate the marriage, then devises the half-baked plan for Juliet to feign her own death, then fails to ensure that Romeo is informed of the plan, then, worst of all, abandons Juliet in the mausoleum where she eventually commits suicide.  In short, more than anyone else, Friar Lawrence is responsible for the tragedy, while paying lip service to the reasoning which could have prevented it.

Some readers might find it odd that Shakespeare made his spokesman the unwitting cause of the tragedy, but self-mockery seems a common feature of his plays.  The terrible or feeble fathers which populate his plays are clear examples of his self-effacement.  One particularly visual example is the Shakespeare crest which William Shakespeare commissioned, the motif of which—black diagonal against a yellow background—he mocked mercilessly in his comedy Twelfth Night.   The butt of endless jokes, Malvolio is lampooned for believing that his Mistress will admire his being “in yellow stockings, and cross-gartered.”

Maybe my students were right all along

Upon reflection it occurs to me as it often does, maybe my students had it right in the first place.  Why did Shakespeare make Juliet thirteen years old?  Because the "real Juliet" was thirteen.  The "real Juliet" was Susannah Shakespeare.

Some editors reduce Susanna Shakespeare's "presence" in the play

In The Norton Shakespeare Greenblatt glosses this speech as meaning "The Nurse evidently suckled Juliet after her own daughter died." However, another possible interpretation is that Susan was Juliet's sister--a sister of similar age or even a twin--the child that Capulet is referring to when he tells Paris that Juliet is an only child because "Earth has swallowed all my hopes but she."  Greenblatt removes this quote from the play and, in a footnote, claims "probably rejected by Shakespeare in the writing process."  Removing Capulet's explanation of how Juliet came to be an only child reinforces Greenblatt's interpretation of the Nurse's speech.  Most versions of Romeo and Juliet that I have read or seen retain Capulet's claim, including the online version at

Eliminating Shakespeare from the study of his plays is a mistake

If we continue with this process so unfashionable in postmodern literary criticism (see After the Death of the Author)  of connecting the text to the author, we would note that Shakespeare's son Hamnet, died in 1596, the year before the quarto publication of Romeo and Juliet, and that he was a twin.  Nothing precise or definitive, but additional reason for us to imagine that Shakespeare was thinking about his own children when he wrote the play.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Do No Harm

"Do no harm"

It was always my intention and ambition as a teacher to honour the basic tenant of the Hippocratic Oath:  “Do no harm.”  It sounds simple enough, and I assume most teachers feel as I do, but for people with sadistic impulses the classroom must seem like a tempting playground.  Since the oath was intended for doctors, much of what it proposes would not apply to teachers, but even some of its tenants like honouring gods and mentors, not using a knife on patients, and not providing abortions seem odd promises even for ancient Greek doctors.  On the other hand, the proscription of having sex with patients or revealing their confidences could and should also be applied to teachers with their students.  (These proscriptions, in my mind, go hand and in hand, and will be discussed in a future post.)

"Spare the rod and spoil the child"

But I’ve never been able to get passed the basic “Do no harm.”  It is a burden and a challenge for any teacher once you start thinking about it.  Are all your students better off because of the experience of having been taught by you?  Have you ever hurt a student?  As a student in the 50s and 60s, I certainly witnessed a great deal of corporal punishment, but those were the days when a sadistic streak was considered a necessary requirement for high-school (and even elementary) teachers.  Even the enlightened educator of today is likely to have done some harm or injury to a student without ever being aware.

"You've just been wasting my precious time"

Under the rubric “do no harm,” I also find myself asking if I have ever wasted my students’ “precious time.”  (Hope you get the Dylan allusion . . . Zimmerman not Thomas.)  If your answer to this question is that if students weren’t in your class, they probably wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile anyway, then you shouldn’t be teaching.  The human instinct is to learn.  No matter what environment you put a human being into, the human reaction is to satisfy curiosity, to try and learn something.  (Have you noticed that when people talk about “drug education” or “sex education,” what they mean is teaching young people not to take drugs and not to have sex, even if this "education" means spreading misinformation?) My biggest preoccupation with educational systems is that so often they seem designed to ensure that students learn less rather than more. The frequency with which I encounter educators who have tacitly surrendered to this conclusion shocks me.  The school is a prison, outside the school is a jungle; the only debate seems to be about which one is worse.

The Best way to spend three hours and learn something

The most typical scenario within which I taught was the three-hour lecture.  It’s a tough question to ask but I did ask myself:  Is my three-hour lecture the best possible way these students could be spending their time?  They could be at home in bed catching up on three hours of much needed sleep.  Making love.  Reading a book.  Browsing the internet.  Making progress on a challenging video game.  Day dreaming about the future.  Taking care of loved ones.  Having a conversation.  Exercising.  Taking a walk.  Watching a blockbuster movie that cost 40 million dollars to produce.  Inevitably they would be learning something, even if it were only about each others’ navels, or how easy it is to waste 40 million dollars.  The 40-million-dollar blockbuster movie-- that was my competition and I always thought I had the advantage because I could use a film in my class, but no Hollywood producer had requested my skills as a lecturer.   Actually, that’s not quite true.  When I requested a 16-dollar budget so that I could show six minutes of Romeo and Juliet in a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from the DVD version of Shakespeare in Love, my request sent shock waves through the department, the faculty, the library and upper echelons of the financial administration.  The department did not have a “pedagogical budget,” but a section of the library agreed to purchase the DVD if I promised not to show it to students (no, I’m not kidding), because group showings would, according to the library, contravene copyright law.  The moral of the story is that if you want to “do no harm” to students, if you want to teach well and insure that they learn something that sticks with them in every class, there is a pretty good chance that you are going to have to break somebody’s rules to do it (the subject of another future post), not to mention forking out the cash to buy your own DVDs.

Triggering past traumas or helping the healing?

I remember once having the privilege of teaching a class that was small enough that I could invite students to introduce themselves in the first class.  One of the students explained that he had only recently discovered that he had been an orphan, had been adopted, and that he had met his biological family for the first time over the summer.  It was a striking revelation; one that stuck with me throughout the course.  The student was very upbeat, but it seemed obvious to me that he was still processing his recent discoveries.  The problem for me was to suddenly realize that every second text on the course I was giving seemed to involve an orphan.  The infant Oedipus is left on a mountain top to die, but survives, is adopted, and returns to Thebes unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother in the process.  Earnest Worthing is left in a hand bag at a train station and grows up not knowing his own identity.  And, in the short story, “Who am I this time?” by Kurt Vonnegut, Harry, the central character, is a brilliant actor but is incapable of developing a “real” personality or social life because he was a foundling.  I remember hoping that the texts would prove beneficial to him, that they would give him the opportunity to consider the significance of being an orphan from a distance and from varying perspectives, maybe allow him to laugh about his orphan-hood, or consider himself lucky that he was no Oedipus.  In fact this idea, the possibility of a distanced and even disinterested or ironic perspective and the opportunity for calm reflection on the world’s and one’s own personal problems became for me, however unfashionable, a justification for the study of literature.

Romanticizing suicide

I live in an area where the second most frequent cause of death for young people is suicide. This fact certainly got me thinking about the number of literary works I have taught which romanticize suicide. Romeo and Juliet is the most obvious and influential example. Actually, our unwitting romanticization of suicide was brought home to me when I was teaching Margaret Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's novel tells of a near-future dystopia in which young women were required to become birth mothers for powerfull, infertile couples. In the middle of a classroom discussion of the novel, one student, a bright and always charming young woman, announced very earnestly to the room that she would never accept to live in the circumstances which the Handmaid was enduring. No doubt, in her mind, the student was simply sharing her feelings, but at the same time she was implying that suicide was the right thing to do and criticizing the central character, the Handmaid, for her decision to survive--a decision which Atwood makes explicit in the novel. Since that day, I have found myself repeatedly arguing against the grain of certain literary works, or at least popular interpretations of those works, which present suicide as the logical and even heroic consequence of dramatic events. While I think I have demonstrated sound pedagogy and sound interpretations of the literary works by demonstrating how fictional suicides are to be interpreted as misguided, short sighted and cowardly, I can't help but think of all the years I taught these literary works without stopping to say the obvious.

The Tipping Point

Yes, I know perfectly well, as do you, that no-one is going to go and commit suicide because they read Romeo and Juliet, but I wouldn’t want anything I taught or said to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I didn’t want to be the butterfly that caused a hurricane (yes, there is a future post coming on pedagogy and chaos theory).  I also believe, as Malcom Gladwell underlines in The Tipping Point, that “the people who die in highly publicized suicides—whose deaths give others ‘permission’ to die–serve as the Tipping Point in suicide epidemics” (224).  By the way, if you see a sign that someone is contemplating suicide, call 911.  It sounds obvious, but people don’t do the obvious.  I understand why . . . perfectly.  The first reaction is that if it were true, someone else would call.  Then you call, and you feel foolish, because of course you really don’t know, in fact, the more you think about it you become convinced that the person really isn’t seriously contemplating suicide.  You will tell yourself that you sound foolish, hysterical.  911 will ask you questions that you can’t answer.  But 911 will take your call seriously.  The police will respond.  When it’s all over, the student will tell you that it was all a big mistake.  You will never be able to say you prevented a suicide, but your student will thank you anyway, and praise you because you were the only person to react.  So call 911.

Honouring confidences

While I calculated and hoped that the study of literature would have a salutary effect on individual students, I repeatedly found myself stymied and second guessing myself as I tried to anticipate how a particular student might be affected by what I was teaching.  As I write these words, I find myself on the verge of breaking the oath which this post is intended to promote.  I don’t want to tell tales about my students.  But in order for what I write to be useful, meaningful and credible, it must be grounded in lived experience.  I intend to be discreet, and consequently somewhat vague, even though I know perfectly well that the salacious details might make for more interesting and credible reading.  I certainly would not want this blog to “out” any of my former students or reveal personal information that could be traced back to a particular individual.

Talking about rape and guilt and trauma

The instances I am thinking about, for example, would include the student who met me in the corridor outside the classroom to apologize for missing the previous class because she was testifying in a rape case in which she was the victim.  My lecture that day was centered on the rape scene in Streetcar Named Desire.   Over the years students have told me about their breakups, their unwanted pregnancies and abortions, of being battered by spouses, the suicides of friends, their struggles with depression and schizophrenia.  I am still haunted by a young mother’s story of how she was responsible for the death of her child.  A Rwandan student’s accounts of her father and sisters being murdered, her mother hospitalized and her brother in a refugee camp simply left me numb.  Knowing that these students are in my classes didn’t change what I taught, but it made me careful, reflective, and aware of what I was saying and how it might affect or be hurtful to a particular listener—and still I can remember the times when students told me I had not been careful enough.

Sometimes "caring" is all we can offer

Of course, there is no solution to the problem I am pointing out (unless you have an answer), except that it prompts the general counsel to be careful.    I have been told that I bring the problem on myself, because students recognize that I am sympathetic and willing to listen.  It has also been suggested that I allow myself to be conned.  I always assumed that students were telling me the truth unless I had proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” to the contrary.  That presumption of innocence, that trust, always served me well in my relationships with students.  It's effect was, in my experience, almost invariably, mutual respect.  The idea that a student might be conning me to gain my sympathy never disturbed me because it was always my intention to be as understanding and generous with students as possible—no special pleas were necessary.   On the other hand, my conscious generosity was only possible because in every course I taught I would set up a substantial variety of methods of evaluation.  In my experience, if you give students ample opportunity to gain or lose marks, they will over the course of time determine their own grades.  I consistently attempted to set up my evaluation structure so that my sympathy could not overwhelm the outcome. 

Objectivity matters

Am I saying that I was consistently objective and egalitarian in my treatment and assessment of students?  No.  In fact, I would say that teachers who are convinced of their own objectivity are very likely to be the opposite.  Perfect justice and objectivity are the sorts of things we must constantly strive for, all the while recognizing that they cannot be achieved.  I know it is impossible that I was absolutely fair in equal measure with each of the students I came into contact with but I also know that I always tried to be.   If we want to “do no harm” then teachers have to be diligent and confident enough to rigorously evaluate their students but, at the same time, self-doubting enough to question themselves and their tools each time that they do.   The student who has been given an inflated impression of his or her achievements and abilities may, in the long run, be as harmed as the student made cynical because the work is too easy or too hard, or the student whose self-esteem suffers because of a low mark or a failure.  There are no magical, “silver bullet” solutions to these kinds of challenges, except to recognize that they exist and to strive against the complacency, cynicism and fatigue that facing these challenges are bound to engender.

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