Finishing Up King Lear

On our last day discussing King Lear, we focus on Cordelia. Continue reading “Finishing Up King Lear”

Finishing Up King Lear

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

Infinite Jest Commonplace #2

“And are you hearing me talking, Dad?”

The answer is always, “No.”

In Chapter 3, we meet Hal’s father, James Incandenza, for the first time. Of course, we don’t know that it’s James. DFW gives us nothing but dialogue and sound effects, an exchange between Hal and a professional conversationalist who turns out to be Hal’s dad in disguise.

This chapter is a send up of the meeting Hamlet has with his ghostly father in Hamlet‘s first act. Yes, that conversation is about plot: “Son, I was murdered! Revenge me!” But it’s also establishing that Hamlet Sr. cares way more about Gertrude than he does his son. He never expresses affection, just a demand that Hamlet fulfill his filial responsibility. Hamlet worships his father, but he is merely an errand boy for his dad.

In this IF scene, father and son are talking past one another. There’s a passing knowledge of one another, but the conversation’s gist is that they can’t have a conversation. James has Hamlet Sr.’s same obsession with his wife’s sexual (in)fidelity, and the son is simply a means to the father’s end.

To top it all off: the imagery of a father’s face melting as he talks incomprehensibly past his auditor? A mirror image of Hal’s situation in Chapter 1.

Infinite Jest Commonplace #2

Infinite Jest Commonplace #1

I started rereading DFW’s Infinite Jest today with an eye towards formulating an argument about the book’s copious Hamlet allusions. I’ll be trying to keep a commonplace book with my thoughts on the topic as I read through the book over the next couple of months.

“I am not what you see and hear.”

Hal Incandenza, the first of the novel’s Hamlet analogues, says this during an admissions interview. It’s a nice analogue to Hamlet’s statement: “But I have that within which passeth show.”

In IF‘s first chapter, we see a young man whose thoughts and perception of what he’s doing are literally the exact opposite of how he’s actually acting. He tries to smile and ends up grimacing. He tries to speak and sounds sub-mammalian. In Hamlet, the tension is between what Hamlet is wearing (funereal garb) and what he’s feeling. He insists that his appearance is matched–even exceeded-by his feelings.

Meanwhile, DFW makes his Claudius-esque character, Hal’s uncle, into Hal’s spokesperson. We don’t (yet) perceive a tension between Hal and his Uncle Charles, and CT (as Hal dubs him) generally tries to protect Hal in this opening chapter.

Final thought: tennis as fencing?



Infinite Jest Commonplace #1

Shakespeare’s Strengths/Weaknesses


On the first day of my Shakespeare survey, I have students examine excerpts from Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare to see what a really articulate critic praises and blames Shakesepeare for. Hint: it’s not necessarily what Shakespearean critics would say now.

The exercise is good because it shows how Shakespeare’s reputed strengths have changed and simply seeing Shakespeare charged with moral lassitude can tend to prick the artificial praise bubble we’ve put Shakespeare in. This will not be a course of non-stop hateration. Neither will it engage in bardolatry. Here’s the tale of the tape…

Shakespeare’s Strengths/Weaknesses