#Shakespeare400-Darwin Disses the Bard

157 years ago today, Charles Darwin sent the first three chapters of his book The Origin of Species to his publishers. He was 50 years old. The theory of evolution contained within made it one of the most influential books ever published, but Darwin had held off publishing for almost 20 years, worried about the response to his radical theories.

During that 20 years, Darwin experienced another evolution. He developed a dislike of Shakespeare.

According to his autobiography:

“I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirtDarwiny years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music.”

After the Origin of the Species was published in full, Darwin received a similarly critical review from The Examiner:

“Much of Mr. Darwin’s volume is what ordinary readers would call ‘tough reading;’ that is, writing which to comprehend requires concentrated attention and some preparation for the task.”

Looking for other reviews, I found one word that kept appearing….“boring.”

Perhaps Darwin should have revisited Shakespeare for a little advice before writing volumes about evolution.

What great advice might he have received?

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (Hamlet 3.2.17)



Hamlet: Danish vs English

A Danish zoo recently dissected a lion in front of hundreds of people including children and their parents. According to one viewer, the event was, “Fun, but also a bit disgusting” (The Guardian).

Apparently, public dissections are common in Denmark.

“Life isn’t the Disney Channel. Get over it,” wrote Mikael Soenderskov, a Dane defending the dissection.

His sentiment is one that may be expressed in the book The Danish Way of Parenting by Iben Sandahl and Jessica Alexander. Sandahl and Alexander ask the reader to remove their “cultural glasses” for a moment and try on a “Danish way” of seeing things, real and without “over-protection”.

That made me think of Hamlet the Dane and how he “saw things”- namely the death of his father, Hamlet, Sr.
When his mother, Gertrude expresses a very Danish way of looking at the loss (I;ii):

Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

Hamlet responds very Danish-ly, “Ay, madam, it is common.
When Gertrude presses to know why Hamlet is still so sad by asking “If it be,/Why seems it so particular with thee?”

That’s when Hamlet reflects into his Shakespearean consciousness -and the more English sensibilities-Hamlet

“Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.'”

While Hamlet hardly represents the Disney Channel, I imagine he could have mourned over the loss of young lion….without pretense…without seeming. He could be very un-Danish.

Day #53 AP Class Favorites: The Monster, the Demon, and Hamlet

At the end of the year I always ask the Advanced Placement English Literature students to take a feedback survey. One of the questions on the survey asks students what novels, plays or epic poems were their favorite pieces. Their answers on this survey always help determine the selections for the following year.  Including the summer reading, there were 13 works from the literary canon that students read during the school year:Literary canon


Little Bee
Bel Canto
1000 Splendid Suns
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
The Poisonwood Bible
The Tempest

A Thousand Acres
King Lear
Paradise Lost

This year, the top favorite titles receiving four stars each were Frankenstein and Hamlet coming in tied at 67%;  Paradise Lost came in at 53%.  The conclusion that can be drawn from their choices is that for 21st Century students, they are pre-20th Century traditionalists!


Day #39: Hamlet-The Literary Safety Net for AP Test Takers Everywhere

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 9.13.09 PMThe Advanced Placement English Literature exam is next week (5/8/14) and I have been absolutely, blatantly, and forcibly teaching to the test.

The students have written timed essays all last week using poetry and prose prompts released by the College Board.

Today we worked on Question #3: The Free Response Question. Students chose three works to prepare to answer ANY question. They took copious notes to prepare. Then, they tested the use of each text by considering several questions from years past:

2012: Choose a novel or play in which cultural, physical, or geographical surroundings shape psychological or moral traits in a character. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how surroundings affect this character and illuminate the meaning of the work as a whole.

2007: In many works of literature, past events can affect, positively or negatively, the present activities, attitudes, or values of a character. Choose a novel or play in which a character must contend with some aspect of the past, either personal or societal. Then write an essay in which you show how the character’s relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

1982: In great literature, no scene of violence exists for its own sake. Choose a work of literary merit that confronts the reader or audience with a scene or scenes of violence. In a well—organized essay, explain how the scene or scenes contribute to the meaning of the complete work.

What literature that the students read this year worked best for at least one of the questions? Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Bel Canto by Ann Pachett, Little Bee by Chris Cleve, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

What piece of literature worked for every question…as it does every year? Hamlet. William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet  is always the best option for the free response when a student does not know what piece of literature to use.

Hamlet...the safety net for AP test takers everywhere!



Day 24: Hamlet & the Soldier-“We Go To Gain a Little Patch of Ground”

The short discourse between Hamlet and a captain from Fortinbras’s army  at the end of Act Four has become my favorite scene in the play Hamlet. There are 22 lines spoken between the Captain and Hamlet but they contain a questions about military service that reverberates today, “Why does anyone become a soldier?”

hamlet as toy soldierHamlet meets the Captain from Fortinbras’s Norwegian army, an army that is marching across Denmark. The Captain does not recognize Hamlet as royalty; he speaks to Hamlet “truly” in his blunt appraisal of the coming attack.

Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.

Here then, the Captain explains the soldier’s paradox. He has enlisted in the military, and in the military, he follows orders. The Captain knows the  “little patch of ground” is worthless to him personally, “To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it…” That same land, however, has value to those who command the army, to those who engage in kingdom building, and to those who care for, “no profit but the name.”

Why, then the Polack never will defend it.
Yes, it is already garrison’d.

All land is valuable to those who desire to expand their holdings. Yet  that same land is as valuable to those who own it, and Hamlet learns from the Captain that the Poles have dug in, preparing for Fortinbras’s invasion.

I think about this scene as the mother of two Marine Corps officers, both who have served tours in the current war in Afghanistan.

This scene from Hamlet has a special significance for me. My older son served his first tour (of three) in Afghanistan in 2011. In our mail one day was a small cardboard box top from an MRE box that he had used as a postcard. He indicated he was doing well, healthy and well-fed, and he asked us to thank those who had sent packages to him. He had carefully printed as much as he could on the box top, as if his writing would be sufficient to assure us of his safety. He signed off  with his scrawly signature, but at the bottom of the card, in a line of postscript, he penned the quote:

“We go to gain a little patch of ground that hath no profit in it but the name.”

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Day 21: Die, Hamlet, Die Again

Hamlet legoThe 4th period senior Advanced Placement Literature class watched Hamlet die four times on Friday. Four times was all the time we had.

These students have been reading and annotating the great soliloquies in Hamlet, but since this is a drama, they have benefitted much more from watching scenes from several film versions of the play. The closed caption feature is on so the students “read” the play while the actors in each cast attempt to, “Fit the action to the word and the word to the action,” per Shakespeare’s directions.

Watching the different film productions complements the study of literary critical theory. These students have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, or Marxist lenses, and they are familiar with New Criticism which is so similar to the Common Core State Standards. They know there is more than one way to read a text. Watching the different versions of Hamlet illustrates there are different ways directors and actors interpret and act the text as well.

This year, I used the 1996 Franco Zefferelli version, which stars Mel Gibson as Hamlet, as the “spine” of analysis for the class. His version is also the shortest, but that is what happens when Zefferelli’s interpretation means he rearranges the order of scenes and drops Fortinbras from the plot entirely.

For “speaking the speech trippingly on the tongue,” I showed  selections from the Kenneth Branagh version (1996) in which he plays the title role. I also used scenes from the much praised 1948 classic by starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, as well as the most recent BBC production directed by Greg Doran with David Tennant as Hamlet. To provide contrasts to these versions, the students also watched short scenes from the Hallmark production directed and acted by Campbell Scott and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modernization with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

In order to have students appreciate the complexity of the Ghost’s request, I showed different versions of the Ghost scene with Hamlet, adding two more versions to the line-up: short clips from the1964 Grigori Kozintsev‘s version and a nightmarish version (2007) by Alexander Fodor.

Watching all these Hamlets took more time we had. A few more classes, and I could have offered a few more? Which one? I never did get to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet (1990), or Richard Burton’s (1964) filmed rehearsal.  There are so many excellent choices from directors, and each has a different way “to draw thy breath in pain. To tell my story.”

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Day 9: Dead Car and the Winds of Heaven

The car died in the driveway last night, a fitting conclusion to the wretched month of March, so I am using my husband’s car to get to and from school. This morning we drove the short distance to the Village Store for coffee, and he willingly gave me his car. I left him there to walk home and wait for the tow truck to take my Toyota Highlander for repairs. He will need to get a rental. He has been inconvenienced because of the car, but he is willing for that inconvenience.

As I drove to school, I recalled the lines where Hamlet spoke of his father’s treatment of his mother, Gertrude. In Act I; sc2, Hamlet is alone. He is depressed, and his soliloquy shows the root of his depression is at his father’s death and his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” to his uncle, Claudius. In establishing Hamlet’s understanding of his parent’s relationship, Shakespeare needs only give three short lines:

…So loving to my mother 
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven 
Visit her face too roughly. (344-346)

The winds of heaven…my husband will not let them visit me roughly, either.