Context Exercise: Mother Night

An exercise from Day 1 of our reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night...

I find most students don’t know what the following terms are, and so the exercise helps them either gain a more in-depth knowledge of the plot or see how research historical/literary context can enhance their enjoyment and understanding of the novel…

Allusions/Context: With your group, use your previous research or phones to look up your assigned allusions from the novel. Develop a response for how each of your terms contributes to the play’s central crisis or character.

1.     The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (v)

2.     The firebombing of Dresden (vi-vii)

3.     I’m An American Day (xi)

4.     Mephistopheles (xii)

5.     Mata Hari (dedication)

6.     “My Native Land” by Sir Walter Scott (epigraph)

7.     Tiglath-Pileser the Third (4)

8.     Sonderkommando (7)

9.     Paul Joseph Goebbels (5)

10.  Rudolf Hoess (16)

11.  The Gettysburg Address (19)

12.  Purgatory (22)

13.  “Olly-olly-ox-in-free” (24)

14.  Ohrdruf (28)

15.  Auschwitz (32)

16.  “Seventy Times Seven” (33)

17.  “Make New Friends” (40)

18.  Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (46)

19.  Pope Pius XI (74)

20.  Mongol hordes (94)

Context Exercise: Mother Night

Macbeth, Secondary Sources, and Analysis

I use this quick classroom exercise to help my students start thinking about how secondary enable more coherent arguments about the play.

I start by asking: what CONFLICTS in the play can these two quotations help you think about?

  1. The play is “Shakespeare’s most profound and mature vision of evil.” – Kenneth Muir
  2. “To the end [Macbeth] never totally loses our sympathy.” – AC Bradley

I then ask them to articulate a SPECIFIC conflict from the play and explain it.

The Play’s Conflict:   ___________________________ vs. _____________________________


Next, I ask them to draw attention to the way that conflict manifests itself in ONE specific character and, again, to explain that conflict.

Your Character’s Conflict: ____________________________ vs. ______________________________


Finally, I have them support that explanation with analysis from a specific moment in the play. In this way, we’ve gone from the ENTIRE play, to a CHARACTER, to a specific scene in a couple of steps. They’ve built up to the specific, detailed  analysis that will be the substance of their body paragraphs.

Scene Analysis: Act _____ Scene ________ Lines ___________


The best part? This process is completely replicable outside of class. If students can internalize this process, they’ll have some tools they can use on anything they read during the semester.


Macbeth, Secondary Sources, and Analysis