Wikipedia as a Scene of Writing, pt. 3

This week’s post is devoted to laying out the semester-long Wikipedia project. As with all facets of our courses, this project has  and is very much evolving from its earliest version. Actually my Wikipedia project itself stems from a writing assignment that my then dean, Andy Anderson, recommended, which still holds a central place in the project.

Step 1: Evaluating Wikipedia

So in the conversations about Wikipedia, I ask my students to visit the Wikipedia page on the 5 Pillars.  Essentially what these are core principles by which the Wikipedian community works. I usually devote an entire class discussing and unpacking each of these pillars, understanding how each relates to the underlying belief that a self-policing community of volunteer editors would be able to maintain such a powerful source of knowledge. The pillar that I spend the most time on pertains to Wikipedia’s neutrality policy:

We strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence in an impartial tone. We avoid advocacy and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them. In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in others, we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context rather than as “the truth” or “the best view”. All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial or is on living persons. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong.

Here I encourage my students to consider the difference that Wikipedia implies between neutrality and objectivity – that a Wikipedia article will acknowledge the controversy on a topic and will look to present and give due weight to recognized points of view. (Here I usual ask students how we might be able to determine major and minor points of view on a topic.)

The discussion of neutrality on Wikipedia leads into the first writing assignment. I ask students to select a Wikipedia article from a list I give them, emphasizing they should choose a topic they can imagine spending the term researching. After reading through the article and “Talk” page, I ask students to find 3-4 sources that were not cited in the Wikipedia article. From these sources, students identify key pieces of information that were omitted from the Wikipedia article. Based on their research, students evaluate the Wikipedia article to see whether it adheres to the neutrality pillar. (To help students wrap their minds around the assignment, I suggest a hypothetical: what if your only source of information about President George W. Bush was the Wikipedia article on him? Further, what if the article did not mention at all the Afghanistan or Iraq Wars? Would you then have an accurate view of his presidency? The idea here is that bias can be created through omission.)

Wikipedia Essay

The pitfall that some students encounter is that they understand the assignment as a typical informative research paper, one which the Wikipedia article simply becomes just one of the sources they cite. The best way I have come up with for anticipating this problem is by emphasizing for students that this is not an essay about the topic of the Wikipedia article but rather about the article itself . In other words, the essay is not meant to inform the reader about, say, school bullying in the United States, but the purpose is to evaluate the Wikipedia article on this topic. I remind my students that their essay should support their conclusion on how the article needs to change. (Given the complexity of the assignment, I am very generous in allowing my students to revise their submissions.)

Step 2: Wikipedia, What’s it Good For?

Once students have completed this part of the project, we have a class devoted to beginning editing their chosen Wikipedia article. Now there is quite a lot of content that I cover with my students in this class meeting, but the three major topics we deal with are 1) the parameters of the editing part of the project (I have image of the assignment sheet below), 2) the need to stay safe online, and 3) the user-interface for making edits on Wikipedia.

Here’s an image of the Wikipedia project assignment sheet:

Wikipedia Project

At this point, students will have done some cursory research on their topic. Based on the research, they have a starting point to make some edits. Students can be resistant to this part of the project. A common complaint that students have voiced to me is that the article is “perfect” and does not need to be edited. When I encounter this response, I ask students to visit the “talk” section of the article to see what other editors have to say about the article. Sometimes doing so gives my students  springboards for their edits. Another concern students have is that they are not experts in the topic and so have no right to edit the article. To this I like remind my students that Wikipedia is not for professionals or experts in the field – it is for those who care about the topic and want to ensure that the most accurate and neutral information is available. Further, I try to encourage them by pointing out that they do have a right to voice what they have learned through their research.

Here’s are some more tips that I have learned so far in introducing the overall Wikipedia project to my students:

1) Make sure that you are also an active Wikipedian. (During this class I introduce students to the Wikipedia article, “Works by Francis Bacon,” that I have been editing over the past three years under the username Atownnative. I will make an edit in class as a model for my students.)

2) Although a bit dated, show students this Youtube video on how to edit a Wikipedia article. (When students create their Wikipedia accounts, they will have to do so outside of the classroom. Wikipedia allows only one account to be created at a time on the same IP address.)

3) Discuss with students how to stay safe online. (I advise my students not to create usernames that in any way relate to their real life identities. Also, I warn them from giving out any personal information to other Wikipedia users – all communication should be done via website and not from personal emails.)

4) Finally, set some class time aside throughout the term so that students can work on their edits. You may have to reserve a computer lab for this part. (Even the most web savvy students will need some help making their edits through Wikipedia’s interface. You should become very familiar with how to do operate the edit feature on Wikipedia.)

My next post on the Wikipedia project will cover the progress reports and overall where I see the project being successful and where I would like to improve it.

Here are the above assignment sheet in WordDoc format:

Wikipedia Essay Assignment Sheet

Editing Wikipedia Semester Project

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True or False? Take Our April Fool’s Literary Quiz

Here’s a fun literary trivia quiz from

Interesting Literature

As today is April 1st, better known as April Fool’s Day, we thought we’d separate the truth from the tricks in a special quiz. Below are ten ‘facts’ about literary works or famous writers which may be true or may be utterly false (but often believed to be true). Can you tell the the facts from the fiction? Or will you end up fooled? We’ll put the questions in the top half, and the answers and explanations underneath. Tell us how you do in the comments below, and invite your friends and family to take the fiendish foolish quiz!

1. In the 1980s, John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath was translated into Japanese as ‘The Angry Raisins’.

2. Book paper almost always catches fire and burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, hence the title of Ray Bradbury’s novel.

3. One of Dylan Thomas’s first published poems was plagiarised from a comic called…

View original post 849 more words

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Wikipedia as Scene of Writing, pt. 2

When introducing the concept of Web 2.0 to my students, two terms always come into play in our conversation – “digital native” and “digital immigrant.” The generational dividing line between these two groups is a bit elusive – some associate “digital natives” with the millennials (those born 1980 or after), while others set the date at around 1990. In essence, a “digital native” is inherently internet savvy – one who sees Web 2.0 technologies as always having been there for them. They are comfortable navigating search engine and have not know a time when websites, like Wikipedia, were not available for them to access information. Conversely, “digital immigrants” are those who, while not necessarily unfamiliar with Web 2.0 technology, were born before the widespread use of digital media. For “digital immigrants,” Web 2.0 technologies may not seem as intuitive as they do for “digital natives.”

Along with this intuitiveness comes a lack of critical questioning on the part of digital natives regarding online sources. A 2010 study conducted at Northwestern University posed the question of what cues do undergraduate students use in determining the credibility of material found online. Surveying 1,060 students and then conducting interviews and direct observations with 102 students, the researched found that the criteria used to assess credibility was the ranking in branded search engines, such as Google: “We find evidence of users’ trust in search engines with respect to the credibility of information they find when using these services. To complete many of the assigned tasks, students often turned to a particular search engine as their first step. When using a search engine, many students clicked on the first search result. Over a quarter of respondents mentioned that they chose a Web site because the search engine had returned that site as the first result suggesting considerable trust in these services ” (479). (I do enjoy explaining to my students how Google’s ranking are not based on credibility ( a subjective measurement) but rather number of visits (a objective measurement).)

When it comes to Wikipedia, how an article is created, maintained, and edited is generally a mystery to students. Back in 2011, Tushar Rae had a great piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed  on how students are generally ill-informed about Wikipedia. Based on a study, entitled ““Young Adults’ Credibility Assessment of Wikipedia,” that Rae cites, most students’ understanding of Wikipedia comes from teachers’ and professors’ warning against the site rather than information available on the site itself. Most students’s experience of Wikipedia is limited to to just retrieving some general knowledge about a subject. (But let’s be honest, that is the majority of visitors to Wikipedia.)

I take my students’ lack of or limited understanding of how the community of Wikipedia functions as the starting point for our discussion. Based on this I open our conversation about Wikipedia with a compare-contrast exercise. I divide my students into groups and distribute to each group a xeroxed copy of the entry on Darwinism from The Encyclopedia Britannica. Then I ask students to go to Wikipedia and find the corresponding entry for Darwinism. The task for my students is to contrast both these entries for how the information is presented to them. (I give them a brief explanation about the difference between content (the information that each entry offers) and form (the presentation of the knowledge).) After while, we come back together to generate a class list of differences they noticed.

Encyclopedia Britannica






WP Darwinism

This exercise serves multiple purposes. First, it allows students to explore a Wikipedia page, becoming aware of the “Talk” section, “History” page, and all of the languages the article is available in. Second, and more importantly, the list acts as a leaping-off point for discussing how each source of information places users in different roles. That is, two of the questions that I ask students are (1) what’s your job when it comes to The Encyclopedia Britannica and (2) how’s this different from what Wikipedia asks of you. My goal here is to introduce students to the concepts of centralized and de-centralized forms of knowledge gathering. We talk about how power is concentrated among a few when it comes The Encyclopedia Britannica, while power is dispersed among all users (ideally speaking) on WikipediaA hypothetical that I pose students is for The Encyclopedia Britannica who determines how long the entry on Jesus Christ is versus how long the entry on Muhammad is and then who gets to make that decision on Wikipedia. Since most students already come to class with a prejudice against Wikipedia, I try to suggest the ethical concerns that The Encyclopedia Britannica offers when it comes to who can and cannot take part in knowledge production. (A great essay that piggybacks on my students and my conversation is Katherine Mangu-Ward’s “Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales’ Sprawling Vision.”)

Here’s a pdf of Mangue-Ward’s article:Mangu-Ward__Wikipedia_and_Beyond

So next week’s post I will devote to explaining the first writing assignment of the Wikipedia project. If you have any feedback to about this lesson, I would love to hear from you!




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Wikipedia as a Scene of Writing, pt. 1


I want to shift the focus of my blog a bit. That is, I am going to dedicate the next four blog posts to a  writing project that I have been developing in my Composition II courses for the past three terms. My motivation for doing comes out of an article that colleague of mine, Andrea Broomfield, posted to her FB profile. (Please forgive me for not having the actual title of the article. Andrea, if you read this post, would you mine helping me out?) Anyway, the gist of the piece was about ways teaching in the 21st century is changing. The part of the article that struck a cord with me was how teachers need to share, via, blogs, Tweets, etc., what they are doing in the classroom. Having taught for more than a decade now, I have benefited so much from those more experienced teachers who were willing to let me steal from them. So in this spirit, I would like to share a semester-long project that I have had some success with it for any other writing teacher who would like to use it or offer some feedback on how it could be improved.

The idea for the project came out of multiple sources. Particularly, though, the project responds to a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Ed. In his letter, titled “Who Says Wikipedia Isn’t Trustworthy?”, Richard Morrill, a librarian at Lake-Sumter Community College, argues that instructors must change how they broach the topic of Wikipedia with their students.  Instead of just hectoring students that Wikipedia is an unreliable source, Morrill writes, “Surely the thing that librarians and English instructors should be doing is giving students assignments to find and evaluate critically information in the Wikipedia?” I have a mixed response to Morrill’s claim. I absolutely agree that simply telling students that Wikipedia is unreliable does not allow for the independent critical thought that we should nurture in our students. However, I think Morrill brings a Web 1.0 mindset to a Web 2.0 site. Wikipedia cannot be treated simply as another traditional academic resource that positions users as a passive, receptive audience. Instead Wikipedia is a forum, a space in which those dedicated to a topic contribute their knowledge in a vigorous and, most of the time, thoughtful way. If anything, the articles are snapshots of rather long, involved debates/discussions among Wikipedians.  Wikipedia is not a source for our students to cite but rather a scene of writing for our students to participate in!

With this characterization of Wikipedia, I have been working on a project in which my students adopt a Wikipedia article of their choosing (although, I do set out some guidelines) for the term. The project works like this: after choosing a Wikipedia article, students evaluate it against non-Wikipedia sources and, then throughout the term, make eight to ten major edits to the article, while engaging in the “Talk” section. Michael Kuhne and Gill Creel describe a similar project in their article “Wikipedia, ‘the People Formerly Known as the Audience’ and First-Year Writing” in the December, 2013 issue of TETYC. (Caitlin Martin raises some significant questions as to the writing skills students are developing through this project at her blog, Cooking and Composition.)

Now there’s a  huge amount of scaffolding that accompanies every stage of the project that I will get into in subsequent posts about this project. However, I want to mention here how students respond to the feedback from other Wikipedians. One of the greatest frustrations that I have had as a writing professor is how students generally ignore my comments on their papers. While incorporating revision based on my feedback, students generally do not have a sense of urgency when it comes to my comments. Yet regarding publishing their writing on Wikipedia, my students perforce must engage with the other editors of the article through the “Talk” section. (While not all the feedback they receive is of the same quality, these interactions present an opportunity for my students talk about how to respond to comments made by other writers not within the classroom. That is, the comments made on their edits come from beyond the artificial community of our classroom and so take on greater weight for students.) Kuhne and Creel observed that through having their students edit Wikipedia articles, their roles as teachers became more facilitative, which is a transition I have experienced as well.

So over the next few weeks I am going to publish a series of posts about this project, covering these topics:

1) How to introduce students to Wikipedia

2) How to set up the project

3) What type of writing students are practicing

4) How the project still needs to evolve

I am going to include all handouts and supplemental readings I give my students, along with outlines for lesson plans. My hope is that anyone who wants to try this project out in their course will find my posts helpful and also may be offer some feedback on how I may be able to improve the project for my students.

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Walt Whitman’s and Langston Hughes’ America

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is one of the first true American poets.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

In the preface to his most well-known and influential work, Leaves of Grass (1855) , Whitman has this to say about the poet’s relationship to his/her country:”The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbs it.” Here Whitman claims that the measure of a poet is in how well s/he speaks the voice of the country. Whitman in his poems seeks to articulate the idea of America and what it means to be an American.

leaves of grass

“I Hear America Singing” exemplifies this goal of Whitman’s. Before delving into the beautiful and problematic metaphor that he constructs, I want touch on two poetic devices he employs in the poem. As you read the poem, you probably noticed that the poem itself is simply a list of different laborers at their work – the mechanic, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the deckhand, the shoemaker, the hatter, the wood-cutter, the ploughboy, the mother, the housewife, and the young girl sewing (these last three I will discuss in a little bit later). The style of poem that Whitman is most known for is called a catalogue poem. Essentially, a catalogue poem is a list of different items that the poet sees as having some type of relationship or characteristic uniting them. So the question for us, as readers, is what unifies all of these people together. In choosing whom to include in his poem, Whitman is making a statement about American identity. (More about this later on.)

The other poetic device I want to highlight in the poem is free verse. Way back in my first blog post on the sonnet tradition, I introduced the term blank verse, also known as iambic pentameter – a line of poetry that contains 10 syllables alternating between unstressed and stressed and divided into five feet. Until to Whitman, poets followed strict rules governing meter – the rhythm of stresses and unstressed syllables. In his poetry, Whitman does something very radical – the lines of his poetry do not follow any rules governing meter. He uses free verse. In a way, we might think of Whitman’s use of free verse as defining him as an American poet. A characteristic that we share as Americans is the need to break away from the old, the rigid, the conventional. We prize the radical, the innovator, the one looks to express his/her individuality. So by writing in free verse, Whitman captures this facet of American-ness.

Now lets go back to content of the poem, those people Whitman chooses to see as singing the carol of America. The similarity that binds all of these characters is that they are part of the working class. Whitman celebrates in this poem the laborer, whom he views as truly embodying the American. (These are the people, part of the society, often overlooked by poets.) Moreover, the song he hears is them at work – the sound of the carpenter sawing wood or the mason laying his stone. A really interesting, and progressive, part of this poem comes in line 8, when Whitman decides to include women at their domestic labor in his catalogue. The work that women do as mothers, as homemakers, as “the girl sewing or washing” contributes as much to America as the male labor performed outside of the home. In this way, Whitman’s vision of America is inclusive regarding gender.

Finally, I want to unpack the significance of the last line of the poem: “Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs” (line 11). In this poem, the metaphor that Whitman uses to describe his idea of America is a chorus. In a choir, singers have their individual parts or roles that come together to form a harmonious whole. For Whitman, America is made up of individuals but who form this nation as community. (Your textbook identifies this as the American ideal of e pluribus unum – “Out of many, one.”) To give a bit of historical context, Whitman publishes this poem in 1860, three years before the outbreak of the Civil War. So when Whitman writes this poem stressing American unity, he is witnessing his country dividing along political lines. Even today, we might question the accuracy of Whitman’s vision of America as harmonious – are there those whose voices are not included in the song of America?

Langston Hughes

Hopefully, you have had the enjoyment of reading a poem by Langston Hughes before this course.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

He is one of my favorite 20th-centruy poets! Moreover, he is a native of Missouri, born in Joplin in 1902. (He actually lived in Lawrence, KS during his youth.) Taking up permanent residence in New York City in 1929, Hughes became the voice of the Harlem Renaissance – an artistic movement that celebrated the art, poetry, literature, and music of the African-American community. In his poem “I, Too” Hughes takes a difficult and fraught question – how to identify with a country that has rejected him? In other words, how can one reconcile being black and being an American?

The opening line of the poem (“I, too, sing America”) is a direct response to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” Hughes’ word-choice is important here. The first word of the poem, “I,” suggests an urgency to assert his identity. The “I” here is not just Hughes but is more general – the “I” is that of the African-American. Hughes’ use of “too” creates a sense that his song, his voice, has been overlooked and not listened to in the carol of America. The black American experience, that defined by slavery, violence, dehumanization, segregation, is a part of our national identity and history, albeit one that is hard to accept. In the opening to his poem, Hughes rightfully demands recognition for this part of the American song, that has been mostly demeaned and neglected.

In the second stanza, Hughes represents the African-American experience as that of the “darker brother” who is forced eat in the kitchen “when company comes.” (Remember that Hughes is writing during the period of segregation, when he would see signs reading, “Whites only.”)

segregated phone booth

coloredswimming pool

drinking fountain

However, Hughes expresses defiance in being excluded from the dinner table: “But I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong.”

Overall, Hughes’ poem is optimistic. The third stanza looks forward to a time beyond segregation, when he will sit at the table. (Notice that the stanza opens and closes with words that indicate a point in the future: “tomorrow” and “then.”) What’s important to note in this stanza is that the speaker does not wait to be invited to the table but asserts his rightful place. Hughes in this stanza continues his challenge when his speaker mentions that “nobody’ll dare” send him to eat in the kitchen.  Furthermore, in lines 15-17, the speaker sees a time when those who had discriminated against him will recognize his beauty and strength and will be “ashamed.”

The final line of the  poem (“I, too, am America.”) mirrors the first: again there is this sense of urgency to assert his American identity. His experience, his story of racism and discrimination and of triumphing over it to claim his equality is one that is an essential part of the American tale. Although there are those who would deny his story and his American-ness, Hughes, through this poem, demands recognition of it.

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Hamlet, Madness, and Misdirections!

As I mentioned in my previous blog post on Hamlet, one of the conventions of the revenge tragedy is for the hero to feign madness. Typically, doing so is the way for the hero to avoid or escape suspicion of his intentions to seek revenge on the villain. Now Shakespeare keeps this convention of the revenge tragedy; however, he makes the audience question to what extent is Hamlet putting on “antic disposition” (I.5.172) and how much are his actions signs of his true madness.

Hamlet’s “Antic Disposition”

Madness is a theme that keeps reappearing throughout the play. When we first see Hamlet, he is set apart from the rest of the world of the court by his overwhelming grief for his father. (Though the rest of the court is still in celebration over the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius, he still wears black in memorial for his recently deceased father.)

" 'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother" (I.2.77)

” ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother” (I.2.77)

When we get a chance to hear Hamlet’s first soliloquy (I.2.129-159), his thoughts turn right away to death: “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” Hamlet in these lines expresses his disgust with world of the flesh and longing for death. (Hard to blame him given that his mother just married his uncle within less than a month of his father’s funeral [lines 145-150].)  Hamlet again opens up about his desire for suicide later in Act III, sc. 1 – his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy: “To die: to sleep;/To more; and by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wish’d.” Again, Hamlet views the world as corrupt and life as misery.

hamletcartoonShakespeare’s audience would have recognized Hamlet as suffering a type of mental disorder, known as melancholia. Essentially, those who suffered from melancholia were lethargic and prone to thoughts of suicide. Even in Act II, sc. 2 line 613, Hamlet admits to suffering from melancholy.

Melencolia (1514), an etching by Albrecht Druer.

Melencolia (1514), an etching by Albrecht Druer.

Now here’s where it gets a bit complicated. While Hamlet is melancholic, he also claims to put on an”antic disposition,” or a feigned madness. After his conversation with the Ghost, Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus to swear not to reveal his intentions:

But come;
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’
Or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear. (lines 170-184)

Hamlet claims that he will pretend to be mad, that he will act strangely so that others will not suspect his plan to seek revenge for his father’s murder. Hamlet realizes the precarious situation that he is in: his uncle, whom no one suspects as Hamlet Sr.’s murderer, has married his mother and assumed the throne. As we see throughout the play, different characters, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, Ophelia, and Polonius (all people who are supposedly close to Hamlet) are sent by Claudius to trick Hamlet into revealing what is on his mind. Through his antic disposition, Hamlet is able to evade all of their attempts. This actually leads into another important theme in the play – truth through play-acting.

“By Indirections Find Directions Out”

I want to focus on two scenes in this section. First is an often overlooked one by students – Polonius’s meeting with Reynaldo (Act II, sc. 2). Let’s set up this scene – Polonius’s son, Laertes, has just left Denmark to return to Paris to continue his studies. Now Polonius, not being a very trusting father, is sending Reynaldo to spy on his son, to make sure that he is not leading a immoral life. Polonius advises Reynaldo to go about doing so by having Reynaldo pretend to know Laertes and imply that Laertes has a tendency towards drinking, fighting, using foul language, and frequenting prostitutes. Polonius believes that through Reynaldo’s lying about his son he will discover whether his son actually is committing indecencies that Reynaldo is falsely accusing Laertes of. Hence, Polonius’s line, “By indirections [lies] find directions [truth] out” (line 66).

Hamlet devises a similar plan to have Claudius reveal his guilt of having murdered his father. At the end of Act II sc. 2, Hamlet comes up with the scheme to have the traveling troupe of actors perform a play that has a very similar plot to that of his father’s murder, which Hamlet calls “The Mouse Trap”. “I’ll have these players/Play something like the murder of my father/Before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks;/I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,/I know my course” (lines 606-610): Hamlet believes that when Claudius sees the murder he committed performed in front of him he will be so overcome that he will reveal his guilt.

"The play's the thing/ Wherein I will catch the conscience of the King" (II.2.616-617)

“The play’s the thing/ Wherein I will catch the conscience of the King” (II.2.616-617)

It is in Act III, sc. 2 that we get see this play-within-the play performed. But the question arises of whether Hamlet’s plan succeeds or backfires on him. Consider Claudius’ reaction to seeing the performance – he stands up and says, “Give me some light. Away!” (line 275). Hamlet interprets Claudius’ reaction as a sure sign of his guilt, and many directors have staged this scene as such with Claudius emotionally breaking down. However, there’s an alternative way of understanding this scene. All Claudius does is to ask for some light and then leaves. It could be that Claudius realizes that Hamlet knows the truth and the “light” is not so much exposing Claudius’s guilt to Hamlet but instead allowed Claudius to see Hamlet as only pretending to be mad.

Below is a clip of Act 3., sc. 2 from the 1990 film adaptation of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson. See how the director decides to interpret this scene.

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Hamlet as Failed Revenge Hero

Before diving into Hamlet, I wanted to share with you this video clip I received through a list-serv I am on. So back in 1666, a great fire that burned from Sunday Sept. 2nd to Wednesday Sept. 5th consumed nearly all of London. (Rumors abounded as to who started the conflagration.)  Due to the destruction that this fire wreaked on the city, much of the London that Shakespeare lived in has been  lost. Now through researching documents and painting of what London look liked before the Great Fire, a group of students  from De Montfort University actually virtually recreated London pre-Great Fire. Here’s a clip of what they did. Enjoy!

The History of Hamlet

As I mentioned in my posting on Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare is not known for the originality of his plots. Only four  – MidsummerLove Labor’s Lost, The Tempest, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, of his 36 plays did Shakespeare invent a plot for. When it comes to Hamlet, Shakespeare very much lifted the plot of this play from other versions of Hamlet that had been on the Elizabethan stage. Since the 1580s, London audiences had seen different versions of Hamlet’s tale performed. Although the script is lost to us, Thomas Kyd’s Hamlet was the most popular version Hamlet before Shakespeare’s. (Even the acting troupe that Shakespeare was a member of, the Chamberlain’s Men, put on this version of Hamlet in 1594)

The story of Hamlet actually dates back to a 12th-century saga by Saxo-Grammaticus. In this version of the tale, the hero, Amleth, seeks to kill his uncle for having murdered his father and taken the throne from him. A more recent retelling of the tale by Francoise de Belleforest was translated and printed in London in 1570.

My point here is that by the time Shakespeare writes his Hamlet in 1599-1600, his audiences would have been very familiar with the story. (Think about how familiar most audiences today are with story of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman!)   Shakespearean scholar, James Shapiro, identifies the Fortinbras subplot as the only part of the play original to Shakespeare.*

I think why Hamlet has endured for centuries is because he has Hamlet actually question his purpose in the play.

“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!”

In one of his famous essays (1625), “On Revenge,” Francis Bacon , a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, described revenge as a “kind of wild justice.” As Bacon explains, those who seek revenge often do not control the outcome of their actions: “[V]indictive persons live the life of witches; who as they are mischievous, so end they unfortunate.” He writes that while the initial wrong driving the person to revenge is a crime, the person seeking vengeance does more harm by upsetting the order of law and throwing society into chaos.  Overall, Bacon warns against revenge for personal reasons since doing so leads to destructive ends.

Bacon’s thoughts on revenge open up a window into how revenge is treated in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play is categorized as a revenge tragedy. This a subgenre of tragedy that was very popular on the English stage from the late 1580s to the first decade of 17th century. (Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586)  is thought to have started the craze.) The elements of a revenge tragedy include a ghost’s call to avenge his death, feigned insanity, a play within a play, suicide, and a gruesome, hyperbolic bloodbath at the end. (You most likely can already see where these elements are in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.) Now Shakespeare does not give us a straight forward, simple revenge tragedy. Rather Shakespeare writes a revenge tragedy in which he questions the value of revenge.

Let’s take a look at Hamlet’s soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (II.ii.560-617). Hamlet has just watched the lead actor from the troupe that Roscencrantz and Guildenstern have brought to entertain Hamlet give a speech about the death of Priam, King of Troy. Hamlet remarks how at the end of speech the actor describes Hecuba, Priam’s wife, watches her husband be hacked to pieces by one of the invading Greeks. The actor becomes so overwhelmed that he begins to cry. Hamlet uses the actor’s faked tears to scold himself for having done nothing to revenge his father’s death at the hands of his uncle (lines 576-582). At the end of this soliloquy, Hamlet says he needs to test whether what the Ghost has told is true (lines 610-617). This is a really important moment in the play: Hamlet, rather than just simply acting on the Ghost’s call for vengeance, comes up with a plan to see if he has been told the truth. “I will grounds/ More relative than this” (616-617): Hamlet needs to make sure that he is not acting rashly and so murdering a person innocent of his father’s death. (It would be as if Bruce Wayne questioned whether it would be a good idea to don the Batman cape.) Here’s a revenge hero questioning the grounds on which he should enact his revenge.

The one time Hamlet does act spontaneously comes in Act III sc. 4. After having staged the play within the play and upset the King, Hamlet goes to speak with his mother. Polonius having arranged the meeting hides himself behind an arras to eavesdrop on their conversation. However, when Gertrude cries out for help thinking that Hamlet is about to warn her, Polonius calls out for aid as well, revealing to Hamlet that someone else is in the room. Hamlet, not thinking about his actions, stabs at the arras and accidentally kills Polonius, hoping it is the King.

Gertrude: O me, what hast thou done?

Hamlet: Nay, I know not. Is it the King?

Hamlet does not even know whom he has just stabbed! He merely reacts without considering the consequences and murders a person innocent of any crime. So his attempt to seek revenge results in ends that he does not foresee. Hamlet’s revenge results in a “kind of wild justice.”

Hamlet’s not the only character’s whose efforts to seek revenge result in outcomes they had not planned. Laertes serves as one of Hamlet’s foils, a secondary character whose purpose is to highlight a characteristic of the protagonist. In Act IV, sc. 5, Laertes stages an uprising to overthrow Claudius, who he believes is responsible for his father’s murder. As Laertes proclaims: “Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged/ Most throughly for my father” (lines 135-136). Essentially Laertes here claims that he does not care what the results of his actions are as long as he get his revenge. As the plot unfolds, Claudius is able to manipulate Laertes into helping him take part in his scheme to kill Hamlet.

So as you can see from these examples, Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy shows revenge as resulting in consequences that go beyond just the hero’s efforts to fulfill the call to revenge.

*Shapiro, James. 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. New York: Harper Perrenial, 2005.

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Midsummer Night’s Dream – Love, Irrationally

I want to look back a second to my earlier blog post on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 . I mentioned that part of what Shakespeare is doing in his sonnet is challenging the poetic form of the blazon , that of comparing one’s beloved to a list of cliched objects of beauty. While the poem undermines our expectations of a love poem, Shakespeare claims at the end that despite falling short of all these benchmarks of beauty (eyes like the sun, lips as red as coral, or breasts as white as snow) he still finds his beloved’s beauty beyond all comparison. How can this be, since Shakespeare has spent 12 lines of the poem arguing for just the opposite? How can the speaker see his beloved as “rare/ As any she belied with false compare”? The answer lies in that the speaker’s perception of the beloved is unique, subjective, personal and cannot be judged by any objective, material standard. In other words, love cannot be explained through reason, which is the major theme of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hermia’s Plight

All of Shakespeare’s comedies begin with the world in a state of chaos. In MND Shakespeare begins with a very common theme to his comedies – true love denied. On the eve of Theseus’ marriage to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Egeus brings his daughter, Hermia, and the two rivals for her love, Demetrius and Lysander. It seems that while Egeus wants to give his daughter’s hand to Demetrius, she has been wooed and fallen in love with Lysander. (In Athens, as well as Shakespeare’s England, the father did have legal standing to choose his daughter’s husband.) Through the conversation that follows (Act I, sc. 1, 20-127), Theseus points out to Hermia that she has three options: either marry Demetrius, live a chaste life as a nun, or be willing to die.

Now an important detail that comes out in this opening conversation is that Lysander and Demetrius are equal by almost all measures. As Lysander argues, “I am, my lord, as well deriv’d as he,/ As well possess’d” (line 99-100).  Even when Theseus attempts to persuade Hermia into marrying Demetrius by noting that he “is a worthy gentleman,” she is quick to respond, “So is Lysander.” Now Theseus’ retort is significant here: “In himself he is;/ But in this kind, wanting your father’s voice,/ The other must be held the worthier” (lines 52-55). So the only difference between these two suitors is that one has Egeus’ permission to marry Hermia and the other does not.

If we look at the matter from Hermia’s perspective, the rational choice would be Demetrius: his is the easiest way for her to avoid either death or spending her life in a convent. However, she resists her father’s will, telling Theseus that she would rather waste her life as a nun rather than unwillingly marry Demetrius (lines 79-82). So why can she just not give her love to him and save herself such grief? Even Hermia seems not to be totally aware herself of why? “I know not by what power I am made bold”(line 59): Hermia in this line suggests that it is a mystery why she is resisting her father’s will. The theme that this opening scene introduces is the irrationality of love. It is not that Hermia can point to a specific quality of Lysander’s that makes him the worthier suitor, nor can she put into words her motivation for choosing him over Demetrius and so placing her very life in jeopardy. Her love for Lysander is not rational but irrational.

Helena as fourth wheel

Before the opening scene of MND closes, Shakespeare introduces the final character of the young lovers subplot, Helena. As she reveals to us, Demetrius was once in love with her: “For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,/ He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine”(lines 242-3). In her soliloquy that concludes the opening scene, Helena remarks that she is judged by all of Athens to be as beautiful as Hermia: “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she” (line 227). So when the two woman are placed side by side, there does not seem to be a rational explanation for why Demetrius would pursue Hermia, who rejects his overtures of love, and Helena, who is head over heels in love with him. You may begin to notice here how Hermia’s situation in a way parallels that of Demetrius’: both of their loves seem to be irrational, causing them grief and frustration, while a logical, easier alternative is open to them.

Helena goes on in her soliloquy to sum up this theme of love’s irrationality: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity,/ Love can transpose to form and dignity./ Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,/ and therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind” (line 232-235).


To translate the essence of Helena’s lines here: love can cause a person to see that which is of little value in the world’s point of view into that which is priceless. Love is a subjective experience, according to Helena, one that does not conform to an outside perspective. For love to “look with the eyes” would mean that there would exist a objective, material reason for a person to fall in love; however, to love with the mind suggests that love does not rest on what everyone else sees. (It might be helpful to read “mind” referring to one’s imagination.) In Act V, Theseus echoes this idea of love’s transformative power when he compares “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet”:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;

That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt. (line 6-10)

What connects all of these figures to together is their imaginative ability to perceive the world not objectively but through their own unique perspective.

So while you read MND, see if you can identify other moments in the play where character’s perspective does not reflect what others see.

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How to read a Shakespeare Play

Why is reading a Shakespeare so difficult?

ShakespeareFirst and foremost, one of the reasons why reading a Shakespearean play challenges students is because these texts were not really meant to be read – they were meant to be performed. Unlike reading a novel or a short story, reading a play requires us to stage the play in our mind. All Shakespeare provides is the dialogue; we have to clothe the words in how the character might speak the lines, what gestures they might make, or even how they would dress. To read a play means that you take on the job of the actor, director, costume designer, and set designer.

Now to read a Shakespearean play we must also deal with his language, a version of English that is over 400 years old. (Shakespeare began his writing career in 1588 and retires in 1612, which spans the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the beginning of James I’s.) Not only does he use words that are no longer extant, but Shakespeare even invented some words himself. (Click this hyperlink for a list words that Shakespeare coined.)

Moreover, some the jokes or cultural references that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have been familiar with, are lost on us. Here’s an example from Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act I, sc. 2, 69-73):

Bottom: I will discharge it in either your straw-color beard…or your French-crown-color beard, your perfect yellow.

Quince: Some of your French crowns have no hair at all, and they you will play barefac’d.

The joke here is a play on words: when Bottom suggests he will play his part wearing a fake beard the color of a French crown, Quince jokes that he would have no beard then since most French, according to the English, had no hair because of they all had syphilis, which was known in England as the “French disease.” (The English and French hated each other at this point in their history.)

Lastly, most of Shakespeare’s dialogue is in verse, generally following an iambic meter. (Take a look back at my blog post on the sonnet form to refresh your memory.) So compounding the difficulties of reading a play written in 1594-5, there’s also the challenge of interpreting the poetic language that Shakespeare uses. Let’s look at another example from Midsummer. Here’s Helena’s response to Hermia’s calling her “fair”:

Helena: Call you me fair? That fair again unsay.

Demetrius loves your fair. O happy fair!

Your eyes are lodestars, and your tongue’s sweet air

More tuneable than lark to shepherd’s ear

When wheat is green. (Act I, sc. 1, 181-185)

Allow me to translate: You are calling me fair? Take that back because Demetrius loves your beauty. Your eyes are like guiding stars and your voice has a more pleasing tune than that of lark singing to a shepherd in springtime. Now, you may ask, “Well, why doesn’t Shakespeare just have Helena say that?” My response, as pitiful as it may be, is that Shakespeare is not read for plot but for the beauty of his language. As Twenty-first Century readers, we generally read for plot, what Margaret Atwood would call, “a what and a what and a what.” The plots of Shakespeare’s plays are not what he is revered for. (In fact, Shakespeare stole his plots from other authors. Only for four of his plays does he come up with his own plots. Can you guess one of them? [Click on this hyperlink for the answer.]) Not too sound pretentious, but it is the beauty of his poetic language that made him immortal.

So how do you go about reading a Shakespeare play?

Start by accepting the fact that you will have to read a line, a speech, a scene, an act, or the entire play more than once. If you rush through reading Midsummer, you will end up more confused about what is going on in the play than not. I recommend that the first time reading through the play should be for plot – figure out what happens in each scene. You might even want to outline the plot for yourself scene by scene.

(Here’s a website that provides a decent overview of the plot. Also, I have no objections about your taking a look at the online SparkNotes summary of the play. For the sake of your blog posts, however, I hope you don’t just read these summaries!)

Midsummer has 18 speaking parts. To complicate matters the two pairs of lovers (Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) form the central plot are easily confused. In Act III, thanks to Puck’s mischievousness, which man is in love with which woman is switch.  In addition to outlining the plot of the play, you may find it helpful to map out the characters as well – what is his/her relation to others in the play.

Lastly, watch a performance of the play. I cannot stress this enough – these plays were meant to be watched not read. Listening to Shakespeare’s verse actually spoken and seeing his characters brought to life on the stage will help you to understand what is happening in each scene. Here’s a YouTube video of a 2007 Harvard-Radcliffe Summer  Theater production. (The play actually begins at 6:28 minutes.)

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William Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”

In my first blog post on Blake’s poem sequence, The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience, I discussed the structure of the work that Blake had in mind. Each half of the poem sequence presents two contrary states of humanity – that of innocence associated with childhood and of adulthood’s corruption. So each poem has a companion: for example, there are two “The Chimney Sweep” poems, two “Holy Thursday” poems. As Robert F. Gleckner points out in the excerpt from his article assigned for this unit: “For the serious reader of Blake’s songs…a constant awareness of the context or state in which a poem appears is indispensable” (1230). In other words,  Blake’s poems must be read with the overall structure of Songs in mind to fully grasp what Blake is trying to communicate. By reading each poem by itself we may not understand the poem’s meaning.

For each state, Blake, as the poet, takes on two different voices, one of comfort and joy (that of the Piper) and one of foreboding (that of the Bard). As I pointed out, Blake depicts this change in voice even in the very diction, or word choice, that he uses.

For this blog post, I want to turn to one of the most well-known companion poems from Songs, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” Here Blake not only continues developing the themes of childhood and nature vs. industry, but explores the very essence of the Creator.

“The Lamb”

Blake's the lamb

It is probably helpful to think of “The Lamb” as a Sunday school lesson. As with other poems in Songs of Innocence, the voice of the poem is that child speaking about very profound theological issues. Here the poem begins with the child asking the lamb “who made thee.” For the first half of the poem, the child expands this initial question, seeing God as a caring, benevolent figure who clothed the lamb in “softest clothing woolly bright” and led it to feed “by the stream and o’er the mead”(Lines 4 through 6). Like the natural world of the Piper, the poem depicts the pastoral scene that the lamb inhabits. pastoral scene Blake reinforces here the association between innocence of childhood and the purity of the natural world.

In the second half , the speaker answers the question, which is obviously God in the context of the poem. What’s important to take away from this half of the poem is how the symbol of the “lamb” takes on multiple meanings: there is the lamb itself, but also the “Little Lamb” is Blake’s child reader. Finally, the lamb is also God (“He is called by thy name/ For he calls himself a Lamb”[lines 13 through 14].)

I have always found Blake in this poem to capture so well the voice of a child. If you have ever heard a child talk to an animal at zoo or farm, you’ll notice that they speak to the animals as if they were being understood. Even in lines 11 and 12, we can almost hear the uncontainable excitement in the child’s voice as he is about to reveal the answer. Moreover, Blake gives the reader a child’s perception of God, whom the speaker comprehends as both a child and a lamb.

“The Tyger”

Blake's the tyger

“The Tyger” maps onto “The Lamb” in that both poems begin with the question of who created each. Yet unlike “The Lamb,” the answer is withheld from us in “The Tyger” for reasons that will become clear towards the end of the post.

In this poem, Blake presents the darker side of creation – while the lamb lives in the valley feeding by streams and brooks, the tyger roams the forest at night. Where we read of the lamb’s soft wool and tender voice, we now encounter the tyger’s “fearful symmetry”, “the fire of thy eye,” and the twisted “sinews of of thy heart.” While the child’s voice in “The Lamb” finds nature to be only gentle and loving, the voice of experience discovers terror and death.

Now the question that “The Tyger” revolves around is whether God is the one who created this fearful beast. However, the poem is very much concerned with the implications of the question. How can the God of the lamb also be the God of the tyger? How can both animals, and the different aspects of creation they come to symbolize, exist together? Is God responsible for both innocence and corruption? If so, what does this then imply about God’s personality? (Think about lines 17 through 19 :”When the stars threw down their spears/ And water’d heaven with their tears,/ Did he smile his work to see?” To paraphrase Blake here: “When the rest of creation cried out when it saw the fearful beast he had made, did God smirk?” Blake imagines God as a sadist, one who creates the lamb simply as prey for the tyger!)

Now there’s an alternative way of reading the nature of the tyger. This may seem a bit out of left field, but think about the shark in Jaws.

Jaws movie posterThroughout the movie, the shark itself does not actually appear evil; rather it comes to represent Nature as indifferent, cold, mechanistic. (The shark is constantly referred to as an eating machine at times.)

Here's what the prop shark looked like underwater. Interesting it kept malfunctioning for most of production, hence why we don't see the shark until half way through the film.

Here’s what the prop shark looked like underwater. Interesting it kept malfunctioning for most of production, hence why we don’t see the shark until half way through the film.

So it would be inappropriate to understand the shark as sinister, suggesting intent.

Similarly, this conception of the tyger as machine comes through in how the poem describes its creation. Take a look at the fourth stanza: “What hammer? what chain?/ In what furnace was thy brain?/ What anvil? what dread grasp/ dare its deadly terror clasp?” The metaphor that Blake uses for God’s creation is one of metal working. The tools God employs in forging the tyger are “the hammer,” “the chain,” “the anvil,” and “the furnace.”

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Iron Forge, 1772

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Iron Forge, 1772

The tyger becomes less associated with the natural world and more with the industrial world. (Look at the illustration for this poem. The tyger’s eye appears almost machine-like.) Blake offers then a more disturbing implication of the tyger: if the tyger, and by extension creation, is a machine, then are the terms evil and innocence simply projected on to it by humanity? Does humanity exist in a universe indifferent and amoral?  Is God beyond our labels of evil and innocent?

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