Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Forgive me for waxing political, but I had to share this!

A brilliant collection of Shakespearean quotations for tonight’s debates! “Hell is empty; all the devils are here.” Posted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, from Timothy McSweeney’s blog, a post by Emily Uecker


“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685…”

Well, right off the bat we have two problems.

My student was introducing her Early American Literature “confluences” paper, for which students were to choose from the syllabus five works written within a span of 50 years and then use them to develop a sense of the intellectual, cultural, or philosophical life of that time. Since my syllabus was organized by theme rather than chronology, the paper was my effort to encourage students to weave the themes together into a larger picture (or tapestry)—or, to use the metaphor of the assignment, to show how these separate ideas flowed together into the collective experience of the culture.

She thinks of each piece as having its own “period,” though, rather than thinking of a period that comprises those works. Off to a bad beginning!

The phrasing has no logic, either, but my student is merely repeating an increasingly common bit of thoughtlessness, not inventing her own: “between” asks for two limits, joined by “and.” “Between the morning and the evening,” for example; “between north and south”; “between the cradle and the grave”; “between January and December.” So she should say “between 1630 and 1685.” Instead, she uses a hyphen (should be an en dash, of course), which in expressions such as this is pronounced “to,” as thus: “1630 to 1685.” Now, the last time I checked, it is not idiomatic to say “between [something] to [something else]: “between morning to evening”; between north to south”; “between the cradle to the grave”…. Sorry, but these phrases refuse to mean anything to me! Of course I knew what she meant; that isn’t how to say it, though, at least not yet.

But the imprecision that inhabits this part of the sentence is mere precursor to the huge vague wave of the hand that follows:

“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685, which was when religion, illness, death, tragedy etc. happened.”

I don’t let my writing students use “etc.” In the margin I write “avoid this catch-all!” The Latin phrase that means “and others,” or “and other things of this nature,” or “and similar things” (or as the King of Siam so charmingly sings in The King and I, “et cetera, et cetera, and so forth”) should be used only when other elements in the series can with accuracy be predicted; it should not indicate writer’s fatigue, lack of interest, or “whatev”—which is exactly how most student writers use it.

Here my student seems to have a relatively coherent series, if “religion” can be considered dire and fatal like illness, death, and tragedy. But if she does intend a coherent series, I can’t imagine any more elements that would be needed to complete it: illness, death, and tragedy seem to cover most of the territory. And if she does not consider religion dire, fatal, and tragic, then what’s it doing in this series? (Her discussion of religion in her paper seemed to present it as dour but not dire.)

I also am relieved to know that religion, illness, death, and tragedy seem to have been confined to a mere 55-year period several centuries ago. I can breathe a sigh of relief that these things no longer occur, since she assures me with a simple past-tense verb that they are over and done with. I do wonder how Shakespeare and Sophocles got so sad, and evidently so prophetic, living before death and tragedy happened. Somehow death must have happened before 1630—and after 1685, for that matter—because a lot of gravestones carry very different dates. But my student’s sentence would deny such evidence.

What really fascinates me about the sentence is that it is at the same time so hazy and so confident. In that way it truly was predictive of the entire paper, so I suppose I should acknowledge its value as a first sentence. Yes, the paper really did go on as it had begun.

For nine pages.


“Romeo and Juliet loved each other to death.”

This is a pretty good summary of the play, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, my student didn’t realize that: that their love led inevitably to their deaths (given their circumstances and personalities and impulsive youth).

Did she mean they loved each other a lot, as so many of us use this phrase: “Oh, I love you to DEATH, John!” (“To death” is used in this same way, to indicate a great amount or intensity, in such phrases as “he talked that subject to death!” and “she bores me to death.” Thus we can see that “to death” doesn’t necessarily carry a positive connotation–is, more often, negative…like death itself, I suppose…)

Judging from the rest of the essay she wrote, I have to think this was not her intention. No, it was an error much more likely: she had in mind the marriage vow to love the other “till death do us part.” Evidently what she had heard, or understood, when she attended weddings was “to death do us part.” So she was telling her reader that Romeo and Juliet kept that vow they probably murmured in Friar Lawrence’s monkish cell. They loved each other every minute until they died. They loved each other all the way to the moment of death. Her essay wasn’t even ultimately about the play; it was about love in general. Many people fall in love and get married and then they get divorced, unlike R&J, who were faithful to the end.

I will prefer to think that the sentence itself was a flash of insight, a conflation of Shakespeare’s entire play, and the fault was in the essay that didn’t live up to the moment of brilliance. A woefully brief visitation from Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy.

And next time I go to see the play in question, as soon as the Chorus mentions the star-crossed lovers, I will think to myself, “Yes, they loved each other—they loved each other to death.” End of story!


She has already loved him to death; she’ll take his dagger and thus he will have also loved her to death. Death by loving. This engraving, an illustration, from an old book (note “Tales from Shakespeare” in the margin), is all over the Internet. No wonder.


“The old, boring, and complex novels caused writing the essay to be more miserable.”

As night closes down on the next-to-last day of what has been a difficult year, this statement by one of my students seems peculiarly apt.

I use “peculiarly” here in its lovely sense of “distinctively, particularly, uniquely,” not in its (now) more common sense of “oddly” or “weirdly.” But maybe that sense is just as good.

I knew what my student meant, of course: writing the essay was hard because the books it was about were hard (old, boring, and complex). But perhaps because I keep assuring my students that everything is interesting to the person willing to be interested, he is reluctant to take responsibility for either the boredom or the misery. Instead, he blames the novels.

There they come, those old things, waddling into his room to cause his writing to be miserable. They settle themselves in his chair and on the edge of his desk and proceed to bore him. They may have complicated personalities, but the complications are not interesting either; they are merely complicated.  And oh MY! but they are old.

Now, he’s not laying the blame for writing’s misery exclusively on them; evidently the writing was already miserable before they arrived to make it worse. We can’t be sure that the essay itself was miserable, but we do know the writing was. And we can be sure that once those old, boring, and complex novels showed up the writing was even more miserable.

Did he have anything to do with any of this? Evidently not. The sentence doesn’t even make clear that he was doing the writing—it seems simply to exist, independent of any agent. And the miserable-ness was visited upon the writing by those books. Perhaps my student was merely an observer, sympathetic or, more likely, bored himself.

I can offer a reason for the writing’s misery: my tired, bored, and lazy-minded student. He characterizes the readings in a way that has, alas, become familiar to me. I have been told, repeatedly, in essays that “Shakespeare is boring.” I have also been told that “Shakespeare is stupid.” The person, mind you, not necessarily the plays or poems. Readers all over the world during the course of some four centuries have been interested enough to keep the stuff in print, and even to support repeated productions of those boring and complex plays; but some of my students have not been deceived: BORING. STUPID. It is a way to avoid blaming oneself for failure to understand the material or care about the characters and their dilemmas: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in myself, but in the texts, that I am failing the course. After reading Angela Carter’s wonderful short story “Erl King,” which is not only a compelling coming-of-age story that uses the erl-king archetype brilliantly but also a gorgeous demonstration of the flexibility and joyfulness of the English vocabulary, several of my students complained that “She had no right to use all those hard words.” No right. That story certainly would qualify as “complex” and therefore “boring.”

The biggest reason why writing the essay was miserable, though, was that the student did not enter the sentences, or the thoughts, or the spirit at all. The source of the misery was impersonal toil at a meaningless chore. Even a young, lively, simple short story would cause misery for such writing.

When I’m working on a piece of writing and it begins to go well, I can feel that pleasure as a physical experience as well as an intellectual one. My hands reach eagerly for the keys, my fingers begin to fly, there is actually a thrill in my forearms. My mind leaps forward; I lean in. I forget time.

I grieve that this will never happen for my student. Writing the essay will always be miserable, because he doesn’t want to get involved. Blame it on those old, boring, and complex novels.

Ah well. We can always hope the New Year will bring something we’ve never seen before, something wonderful. That’s my wish…

Oh my. Old and complex. Bound to be boring. He LOOKS boring, doesn't he? (Only to the superficial glance…)

Oh my. Old and complex. Bound to be boring. He LOOKS boring, doesn’t he? (Only to the superficial glance…)

“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words…”

It’s phrases-in-the-blender day, folks. “Off the bat” becomes “from the bat” for some reason. An image from cricket or baseball, “right off the bat” means “immediately, without delay,” and comes as a metaphor from such observations as “right off the bat the ball was headed out of the park.” My student was writing about one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Now, Shakespeare referred to just about every feature of life, large and small, grand and ordinary, formal and casual, clean and unclean, in his plays, and he wasn’t averse to experimentation with imagery in his sonnets (or to mocking other poets’ dependence on formulaic image traditions such as coral lips and sun-like eyes). I don’t recall any bat-and-ball metaphors, though; and when I think about Shakespeare as a writer I generally don’t do so in sports imagery. My student evidently does, although she doesn’t get the phrasing exactly right. Well, be that as it may: right off the bat, Shakespeare is getting busy with that poem. He doesn’t waste any time.

But the formulaic phrase that follows Shakespeare-as-Babe Ruth is from another sphere of life entirely: “Shakespeare is using his words.” I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard this phrase except in connection with admonitions to temperamental children: “Henry, stop hitting Kaitlin with that bat; use your words!” So now I recast Shakespeare the Slugger as Shakespeare the Well-behaved Child.

Why is Shakespeare using his words? To share, of course. Here’s the whole statement:

“Right from the bat Shakespeare is using his words to share how much love he has for the person he is talking about.”

The “share” keeps us in that mommy (or support-group?) vernacular. Probably after “using his words” the “share” just insisted on following. He’s going to share how much love he has. Now, this does NOT mean that he’s going to share his actual love here, no, not with the reader; “share” doesn’t mean “give part of , divide and distribute, experience or enjoy with others”; in this usage it means, as all us modern speakers know, “tell, express, confide.” For some reason we don’t say “tell,” “express,” or “confide” anymore, I guess: “share” is so much warmer and less precise.

We know Shakespeare isn’t going to share any love with us because the writer is clear that the love is for the person he is talking about, not for the reader. My relief at seeing the word “talking” is huge because it’s a word I pretty much know, used in a way it’s traditionally used. Or not, of course: Shakespeare is writing, not talking. But in this instance, close enough.

He’s not going to actually express his love, evidently; he’s going to “share how much love he has.” An overabundance of synapses that may have come with age takes me all over the literary landscape with this one, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”) to that pop song Petula Clark sang:

My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine
Softer than a sigh
My love is deeper than the deepest ocean
Wider than the sky….

Neither of these associations takes me deeper into Shakespeare, though; and his sonnet is like neither of them.

My apologies if the rest of your day is going to be played out against the background of that perky Petula number… Do take comfort in the fact that mine will be too.

I am relieved at the realization that Shakespeare is going to talk about his love for the person he’s talking about, at least. A sonnet is too brief a poem to clutter up with expressing love for someone other than the person he’s talking about, although I suppose he could “share” that he doesn’t love the person he’s talking about as much as he loves someone else. He wrote a sonnet sequence, after all, so the someone else could be talked about further in the other sonnets. In fact three characters do inhabit the sequence Shakespeare wrote: the young man, the “dark lady,” and the speaker. Sorting them out has kept graduate students and other scholars busy for about four hundred years. But my student isn’t concerned with this at all; she’s just commenting on a single sonnet she read.

A sonnet is also too brief to waste time at the beginning; it really does have to start right off (okay, from) the bat. A Journal entry is also a brief form, as I have assigned it. My student does not start right off the bat, though: she noodles around with bats and shares and other vagueness and wordiness rather than coming out and saying something.

The thing that makes me feel like an ogre is that she really, really likes this sonnet, as the rest of her Journal comment made clear. She likes Shakespeare. And I am beyond delighted that she does—I do, too. Because I don’t want to dampen or trivialize her appreciation, my comment on her Journal entry (which isn’t, after all, a “writing” assignment) won’t even mention her diction level, although I will underline the formulaic phrases and hope she stops in during office hours to find out why. (She didn’t.) But how someone could read Shakespeare’s specific, witty, allusive, cadenced writing and then respond with this sentence is beyond me. I imagine it’s that people who aren’t habitual or observant (or, perhaps, trained) readers don’t make these linguistic distinctions, don’t look for precision of meaning in trendy or commercial speech, don’t hear the competing voices and attitudes in their own verbal Smoothies. Hence the frequency of references to “Grendel’s mom” and “Hamlet’s dad” in student papers. I suppose.

Perhaps I should just give in. A living language is a language that changes. Perhaps there were people in Shakespeare’s audience who shook their lordly heads at his use of street slang and his coinages: “What is the Queen’s English coming to?”

Just the same. English is a huge and vigorous language (thanks partly to Himself). I wouldn’t send a boxer into the ring with both hands tied behind his back, or a violinist into the orchestra pit without a bow, and I hate to send students into the world with only the sketchiest notion of how to wield the mighty instrument that is available to them.


“Othello felt like she was cheating on him because….”

Poor Othello. I have spent it-seems-like-a-lifetime trying to persuade students that Othello has no “tragic flaw,” and is not jealous until Iago has worked on him for more than three acts of the play. But they have read it—OTHELLO”S TRAGIC FLAW IS JEALOUSY—first in Cliff’s Notes and now in Spark Notes, and such impersonal voices of authority are stronger than mine.

I see Othello as a tragedy of innocence. Othello was no more suited to the intrigues of Venetian life than Desdemona, albeit for different reasons. Iago is the jealous one; but since Iago is also a very good student of psychology (even before it existed as a discipline), he knows how to create jealousy, and can work Othello into a virtuous murderous rage by way of it.

Othello has refused to believe ill of Desdemona without ocular proof. Iago has, conveniently enough, come by the handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona during their courtship, a handkerchief that had been given to his mother. The handkerchief is maneuvered into the hands of Cassio, someone Desdemona and Othello have both trusted and respected and Othello has promoted. Othello has quarreled with Cassio over some drunken behavior, and Desdemona has undertaken to get Cassio back into Othello’s good graces. But her advocacy irritates her husband, and when he sees that handkerchief in Cassio’s hand (and on the way into Cassio’s mistress’s hand) after many insinuations by Iago, he is indeed ready to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

The rest is tragic.

My student was trying to describe the handkerchief ploy. What he wrote is correct, but oh how awkward. This was a sentence ill begun and faithfully carried through to its disastrous end:

“Othello felt like she was cheating on him because he found a handkerchief in one of his friend’s hands that belonged to him.”

Can you sort it out? Perhaps “because he found his own handkerchief in the hands of one of his friends” would save it. But what got onto the paper seems to suggest that Othello has a collection of hands. Several of those hands belonged to his friend, but now they belong to him: it’s his very own hand collection. But one day he has evidently gone in to gaze upon his collection and, lo and behold, one of those hands has a handkerchief in it! Certainly his wife must be cheating on him! Has she been sneaking into the room, I wonder, and putting handkerchiefs into hands that don’t belong to her? That’s not playing fair…

Isn’t that how the modifiers have to play out? “That belonged to him” has to modify “hands,” doesn’t it? It’s an adjective clause, and as such has to modify the noun that immediately precedes the relative pronoun. That is “hands.” And the handkerchief is in one of those hands. The hands belong to his friend (note the singular possessive). Othello has a strange notion of friendship, expressing his fondness by removing his friend’s hands and taking possession of them.

The image is grotesque and hilarious. WHY didn’t my student start over when he saw that the sentence was getting out of, um, hand? I’m afraid he just carried on because he didn’t really know that the sentence was grotesque or unmanageable. How could he not have known, though?

Ah well. My dear father had as a driving mantra “Never turn around.” If he missed a turn, or got lost, he pushed forward until he found an intersection that promised a chance to change direction. He did know, though, that he had missed the turning, or that he was lost. He found a way to correct the error, no matter how circuitous the correction. We had some interesting trips.

My student, I’m afraid, had no idea he was lost: he drove on because he thought he was on the right road. And by gum, he was! But the road is so rough that it must have been under construction. I wish he had looked for a detour.


“The Tragedy of Othello and the Whore of Venice…”

Another lost Shakespeare play?

This is an interesting title. The first thing it reveals is that the student never actually set eyes on the play. Back in my own student days, I confess, I didn’t read every word of every assignment, and on several occasions I went into class with a book that looked read only because I had carefully thumbed the pages, dog-eared a few, and broken the spine before rushing to class. But—and I don’t say this with any particular pride, it’s just a fact—I always knew the title of the assigned piece. The student writing on Othello here has more in common with his schoolmate who wrote a critical paper on The Twelfth Knight than he has with the sometimes-under-prepared me.

So, chalk it up to trying to write a paper based on things heard (or mis-heard) in class.

Now, as to that whore. As you may or may not remember, depending on what you majored in and how long ago it was, the full title of the play we refer to as Othello is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.

“Moor” may be an unfamiliar term to modern students; those who read a little Brontë in high school may think of the landscape feature even if, like Emily Dickinson, they never actually saw one of those moors. Unless they’ve studied medieval European history they may not have a clear idea of the Moors, those dark-skinned Arabs who conquered parts of Europe and terrified everybody with their fierce battle skills, horsemanship, non-latinate language, ornately wailing music, and exotic architecture (Spain, anyone?). Othello, the Moor of Venice, is referred to as one of them, not a landscape feature. But, because when we hear an unfamiliar word we are likely to “hear” instead a word in our own vocabulary that sounds like it, I assume that the word “moor” in any sense was new to this student…

And so he heard “whore.” Now, not all of us pronounce “whore” to sound like, or rhyme with, “Moor,” but some of us do: “Whoo-uh,” in Brooklynese, for example, and “whoor” possibly among those too fastidious or virtuous to speak the word “whore.” So “Whore” gets into the title of the play.

Music groups today aren’t so fond of putting “and the” in their names, but in My Day it was a commonplace: Little Anthony and the Imperials, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bill Haley and the Comets, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Booker T. and the MGs, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe and the Fish (I know my point was made long before I ended this list, but I thought you and I deserved a little trip down Memory Lane…). In grad school we made up fantasy ones: Diggory Venn and the Reddle Men stands out as one of the best, with Juno and the Paycocks and Leda and the Swans coming up close behind. If my student had any tendency toward comfort with this pattern, he might have added that “and,” making the subject of Shakespeare’s play a rock ‘n’ roll group (or at least duo).

The Whore of Venice might also have gotten in there by way of the Whore of Babylon, if my student had been hearing any anti-Catholic propaganda or studying the Book of Revelation.

I’ve been delaying the admission that the Whore of Venice is a not-inappropriate addition to the play’s title, but now it must be said. Desdemona, a young Lady of Venice, is a pure and faithful and loving wife to Othello for the brief days that she is his wife, and Othello holds fast to his belief in her until Iago manages a little dumb-show that persuades him otherwise; but Iago has been insinuating throughout the play that Desdemona is not, cannot be, faithful to “the Moor,” and when Othello kills her he has been persuaded that he is removing a whore from the world lest she “betray more men.” The play is not a tragedy for Desdemona in the sense that we use the term “tragedy” in literature, but she certainly suffers and she certainly dies. I like that my student sticks her into the title along with Othello, although he doesn’t do so very respectfully.

But I don’t like that he has the temerity to write about a play he hasn’t read, and his error in the title makes pretty plain that he hasn’t. Poor lad: if only he had been content to refer to the play as Othello, as most people do, I might never have known.