Thursday, April 26, 2007

Questions from the Back of the Room

The questions I have the most difficulty with in the classroom have to do with the "why did he do that?"

Why does Posthumus in Cymbeline brag on his wife Innogen/Imogen enough to get in a fight (before) and do the whole bet thing with Iachimo/Jachimo/Giacimo?

It seems like a poor strategy to jump to a "men are idiots" sort of answer. I don't think I've ever seen men actually argue about their wives' chastity; I certainly haven't seen them come to blows over such. And even if I had, there are men in the room who may not be idiots, right?

I can go to the later Iachimo refers to Tarquin, so there's a kind of pattern answer, which satisfies few students. It's a great tie in once you've got Iachimo in the room, but it doesn't really make sense of the original bet (though it provides at least one very famous precedent for stupidity).

Sometimes I just want to go pragmatic and say that it would be a piss poor play if Posthumus and Iachimo agreed that women aren't perfect, and perhaps it's best not to tempt them, and while we're at it, let's convince Cymbaline to just pay the tribute up front and be done with it, and send Cloten to his room. Fifteen minutes in, a conversation or two and some threatening stuff about poison, and we're done. Boring!)

Even harder are the "why did Shakespeare do that?" sorts of questions.

Trust me, if I could channel Shakespeare, I wouldn't be living in the ice cold winters of the upper midwest. Heck, I wouldn't be half sad if I could channel Marvell, or Herrick. I'd probably freak some people out talking about Julia's paps and such, but oh well. (I would be considerably more unhappy to channel Eliot or Blake. I don't think I have much to worry about in any case.)

(Now there's an idea that could get some interesting responses: which famous author would you most hate to channel, and why? Hemingway for the win!)

I don't know why Shakespeare did "that." I can explain the effect, perhaps, and how it works. And I can guess that Shakespeare could predict that doing "that" would be effective, given that he seems to have been a pretty good dramatist and all. But beyond that? I can draw parallels with other plays or whatever, maybe. I may be able to make connections with theory and historical information. But alas, I don't know why.


I was in one of those meetings the other day, where a faculty faction was feinting and parrying about the difficulties of their situation. I feel like such a noob, because it was only three quarters of the way through the discussion that I realized that some of the deeply injured feelings on display were being produced at least in part because the chair of the committee is part of the other faction.

It's like theater, except really bad theater with grown adults chewing the scenery for all to behold. And it's evidently a rehash of the same drama the participants have been having for a number of years.

Members of the committee kept asking how things could be made better, but instead of focusing on that, the same person kept going back to how hurt the feelings of everyone are, and how they'll never get over the hurtness.

Please, please, let me learn to put aside bad feelings about the past when something's over, and learn to look to solving problems rather than reliving them in high dudgeon at every opportunity.


Speaking of high drama: Last night, I went to see the rehearsal for the spring play I've been involved with. It's cool for someone like me to see the partially built sets and such, to see the duct tape holding the production together.

I got there a couple of minutes before the rehearsal was supposed to start and the students were going a little wild. But this crowd seems really able to switch quickly between loose chatter and focusing on rehearsal; I was impressed. Most of them seem to have the language down, and seem to be thinking about the meaning of what they're saying rather than just saying words.


I read that Stephen Hawking is going to go up and experience zero gravity in a short free fall. I hope he has the biggest blast ever. Man, there's a guy who's been put in a bad situation and still manages to work productively and effectively. (I wonder how he is to work with on committees, though!)

UPDATE: Looks like Hawking had a great ride. I don't know quite why, but I'm really glad for him.


  1. On the "Why did Shakespeare [or any writer] do that?" question, I find the pragmatic response entirely satisfying. "Because there would not have been a play otherwise. Or there would have been a very bad play." Works of literature depend on the acceptance of certain conventions; as readers, we accept those conventions in order to get to the good stuff--the psychology, the philosophical insight, the sheer pleasure of language, etc.

  2. Oh, yeah, & I've been through that whole committee thing with hurt feelings. I used to be Chair of the Faculty Senate. God how I hate that whole song & dance.

  3. That's the one thing that's making me think seriously about private practice instead of academics. Academic politics are seriously hell, and I'm just a tad too naieve to really understand them, be able to work with them, or use them.

    I'm really glad Stephen Hawking had a good ride too. Sometimes I think about how he's productive as he is and how I'm so completely unproductive, I surf blogs at work when I'm supposed to be writing papers or lectures.

  4. Thanks for the previews of issues in Cymbeline (which I still have plans to tackle this summer).

    I don't know which writer I'd hate to channel, but there's one whose words I'd love to channel: Jane Austen.

  5. Joseph Duemer, Chair has to be the worst in those cases! You're supposed to try to keep things on track, be fair, and somehow assuage hurt feelings. Ugh.

    MWAK, I imagine hospital and practice politics are actually uglier than academic politics. The (money) stakes are high, no?

    So cool about Hawking!

    Undine, You are in for a treat, I tell you! I can't wait to hear how you like Cymbeline. Ooo, channeling Jane Austen, even for a moment, would be utter perfection.