Close reading worksheet: Wyatt

The close reading guidelines I posted last week got more attention than I’d of expected. So thought to post, also, a worksheet I slapped together to help students build the skills they need to do all the damn fool things I say they might should.

This one’s on four of the six poems we’ve read by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Two sonnets, one sonnet on steroids, and one song that ne’er was, it thinketh me, no song never, and his lute be damned.

You might find the sheet haphazard and’d not be wrong. But a bunch of the Q’s on it, I framed after we’d talked about the poems some, so we had some lines we were thinking of them along, and I wanted to continue those.

We talked through about 1/2 of it today, and while they didn’t find it near so fun as wondering whether he did or didn’t do X with Anne Boleyn, they did brave and well. Noticing, e.g., how the fricative alliteration in “Fainting I follow” (in “Whoso list to hunt”) makes for a heavy breathing mimicking the breathless faltering hunter’s. And the echo, in “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind,” of the bag of winds given by Aeolus to Odysseus – a connection I admit I’d not have made, but I do think may be there, via Ovid if not from Homer straight.


Wyatt Worksheet

Apportion tasks as you see fit – but do collaborate, so as to come to the most complete answer to each of these questions. Take thorough notes, so you can report back to the class as a whole.

“Whoso list to hunt”

  • Describe the rhyme scheme (ab etc.) and locate the turn. What changes, rhetorically, at the turn? In other words, what is the speaker up to, before the turn, and how is what he’s up to different, after?
  • There are spots where alliteration becomes prominent. Find them. What’s the effect of the alliteration?
  • There are two lines that are metrically regular iambic pentameter except for a trochaic substitution in the first foot. Find them. What’s the effect of the substitution?
  • Feel your way into this metaphor: “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.” What does it say, reflect, embody, about the speaker’s endeavour?

“My galley”

  • Describe the rhyme scheme of the sonnet. How is the rhyming practice here different from that of “Whoso list”? How does it support or complement the poem’s content?
  • We said in class that the extended metaphor in this sonnet qualifies as a conceit, in which unrequited love is equated with a sea voyage. Identify every point of connection you can find between the two terms of the metaphor: literal (ground) and figurative (figure). E.g., “A rain of tears,” rain = the lover’s tears; “The stars,” stars = the beloved’s eyes.
  • Paraphrase lines 7–8: rephrase them in modern English with no loss of detail.
  • What do you make of the paradox that the speaker’s “enemy” is also his “lord”? Does it matter that these two descriptors are on two different lines?

“They Flee from me”

  • It’s never specified in the first stanza who or what “they” are. We can surmise, of course: they’re deer (figure), they’re lovers (ground). Why might Wyatt leave it implicit though – both deer and lovers unnamed?
  • “Busily seeking with a continual change” seems to apply well to young ladies of the court, not so well to deer. Is this a flaw in the poem, a metaphor fail? If not, why has the metaphor collapsed before the stanza and the sentence are done?
  • What do you take lines 18–19 to mean? What tone are they spoken in?

“My lute, awake!”

  • Scan stanza six. There are four trochaic substitutions in the stanza – find them. Is there anything that can be said about the effect they have?
  • Find the spots in the poem where the addressee, the thing or person spoken to, changes. Are these shifts important to the poem, rhetorically, structurally?
  • The poem imagines someone speaking (singing), someone spoken (sung) to. To what ostensible purpose? Is there some other obscured purpose we can discern? While we’re on the subject, does the poem imagine, in addition to its addressee(s), anyone overhearing?

That last one because these poems are as complex rhetorically, as aware of their ostensible audience, of possible intended unintended audiences; of their manifest purpose, of secret but broadly acknowledged purposes; and of purposes secret to all but the speaker, also of purposes the speaker has kept secret perhaps from himself – as any of the machinations were at that royal court, Henry 8’s, in which precincts these poems became so sharp and multiple, deadly and fine.


The image, in its whole glory, is Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello.

Hunt_in_the_forest_by_paolo_uccello

Click on, to see if you know where is an hind.

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Guidelines for close reading

What I gave my lit students a few hours back. With the advisement, the heavy lifting begins about now. Posting it here cuz it may not be a bad protocol to follow, if you’re ever asked, please close-read this poem, and you don’t know how to begin. Fellow teachers, yours to steal from; credit if you grab a lot?


Assignment: Close Reading Draft

Close reading is the heart of literary study. And it asks a challenging shift – from thinking about what a poem says, to thinking about what it does. With that difficulty in mind, I’m making some other things easier for you in this assignment. Specifically, I’m going to give you a template for this draft, so you don’t have to think about how to organize it. Later, when you revise, you can bust out of the template, find your own organization, one that suits the guiding question(s) or WTF moment(s)[1] you’ve uncovered in the drafting process.

Your draft should be in paragraph form, but follow the template below; include subheadings. Some sections will be short, some long, depending on the poem, and what in it interests you.

(0) Paraphrase

Begin by writing a paraphrase of the whole poem. This won’t be part of the essay, but it will ensure you know what the poem is actually saying, phrase by phrase. You can check your paraphrase against one you find online, but do not go to an online paraphrase before you do your own of the entire poem. If a paraphrase you find disagrees with yours, go back to the passage in question; if your source changes your view of that passage, change your paraphrase accordingly. But do not incorporate any wordings (cited or otherwise) from any source you find. The wording of your paraphrase must be your own, because at some point it may find its way into your essay.[2]

(1) Prosody

Scan the entire poem – mark each line for stresses and divide the line into feet. Also locate the caesuras. (We’ll go over this some more in class.) Don’t include this complete scansion in your draft; you may however want to include scansion of individual lines that are especially interesting. Do identify the dominant meter. Would you describe the meter as fairly regular or somewhat irregular? Most interesting will be spots where the meter varies in a way (a “substitution”) that mimics, underscores, or complicates the meaning. Locate any such spots and describe what happens there. And, any other interesting metrical or rhythmic effects you notice? Be sure to read the poem aloud; do any particular spots land strangely or interestingly on your ear?

 (2) Rhyme and stanza

Describe the rhyme scheme. Describe and/or name the stanza form. Do the rhyme scheme and stanza form have any noteworthy characteristics? (E.g., an abba quatrain has a feeling of closure and completion, while an abab quatrain has a leapfrog quality of forward movement.) Do those characteristics complement or complicate the poem’s content? Are there any internal rhymes or cross-rhymes worth noting? And, remembering that rhyme draws two words together in mind by drawing them together in sound, are there any rhymes that stand out as interesting or unusual? Finally, is there a refrain? If so, how is it varied, if it is? How does the refrain work in the poem? (imagine it gone – how does the poem change?)

(3) Other sound effects

Any noteworthy alliteration, assonance, consonance, euphony, dissonance, onomatopoeia? What relationship does that move (what the poem does) have to the content (what the poem says) at that moment? It might emphasize, complement, complicate, even undercut the content.

(4) The line

The line is the fundamental unit of the poem. It’s what makes a poem a poem. Each line is, in a sense, a little world – all we know of the real, for as long as we’re there. If there are lines that strike you as resonant, strange, important, or WTF, treat them as compositions: how do meter, rhythm, sound, diction, figures of speech, other moves come together in them, work in concert?

Also, think the line end, whether it’s end-stopped or enjambed. An enjambed line breaks in the middle of a syntactic unit. A poem can use enjambment to create suspense or forward momentum, or even to layer one meaning over another: you get one meaning at the line end, another one a bit later, when the thought completes in the next line. Look for such moments. If you find any, identify and describe them.

(5) Diction

Are there words that stand out as especially charged, interesting, strange, difficult, or problematic? Trust your WTF reactions here; they may mean that word that had a different use than it has now; or maybe its use was strange even in its time (e.g., “newfangleness”). Research the word in the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary – what can you learn about the history of its usage? what secondary meanings did or does it have that might enhance your reading of the poem?

 (6) Metonymy

Are there any words or phrases that have a particular metonymic charge – that, more than most others, use our habits of association (“contiguity”) to call to mind other things, feelings, conditions, qualities, or actions? Be careful not to project modern or personal associations onto the poem; try to judge, from the context the poem provides, plus the cultural context you’ve been reading about, what associations the word or phrase would elicit in a contemporary reader.

 (7) Metaphor and simile

Where metaphor uses contiguity (next-to-ness) to elicit an association, metaphor uses similarity to assert an identity – an identity that’s not actually so, but if the metaphor works, it’s imaginatively right. There are implicit and explicit metaphors, local and extended metaphors, conceits and Metaphysical conceits, and (yuck) allegories, which we may avoid completely. Western literature loves metaphor because there’s something escapist at the heart of both.

What local metaphors are at work in the poem? What effects do they have? Is there an extended metaphor? If so, describe how it’s sustained, developed. Is it a conceit? If so, track its development, the different moves it makes, what gets identified with what. Finally, are there any similes in the poem? If so, what gets compared to what, and what are the effects or implications?

(8) Other figures of speech

You may find pun (double meaning), hyperbole (exaggeration), paradox (apparent contradiction), allusion (literary, historical, or mythological reference), personification (treating the non-human as if human), or others that have come up in class discussion, or that the Norton Anthology identifies. As best you can, identify and describe these, and say how they affect the poem as a whole.

(9) Tone

How would you describe the speaker’s tone? What words and phrases establish that tone? Does the tone change over the course of the poem? How does the tone intersect with other features you’ve identified? (E.g., there might be a bitter, cynical tone, framing a radiant, transcendent metaphor, which would be a peculiar tension – WTF?!)

 (10) Rhetoric and convention

Who is speaking? (It’s not the poet, it’s a persona the poet creates; what is that persona like?) To whom? (And, who is expected to overhear?) To what ostensible purpose? What other purpose might there also be? What words and phrases reveal these purposes and relations to you? Finally, what lyric conventions might the poem be taking part in, when it has its speaker speak in the ways s/he does? (E.g., Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd” is a lyric in the pastoral genre, and conventions of that genre inform everything the shepherd says.)

(11) Structure

What’s the global structure of the poem? A sonnet may be octave–sestet, with a volta (turn) between them; or three quatrains, volta, couplet. A poem in multiple stanzas might have one or more turns – as in “My lute awake!” which turns each time the speaker changes addressee. Once you’ve discerned what the poem’s major parts are, try to describe what it does in each part. For instance, in “They flee from me,” we saw that the first stanza describes the general or collective case, and the next two stanzas illustrates that case by giving a specific instance.

(12) Guiding question(s) or WTF moment(s)

Finally. Some of these questions will have yielded a lot. Some not so much. But by now you know the poem a lot better than you did. Still, it’s not like all your questions are answered. In fact, if this went right, some questions got resolved, while new, deeper, more interesting, more difficult questions arose. Or maybe a question you had from the start got more and more thorny – an image or word that stands out as not belonging, a sonnet convention that isn’t obeyed. For this last part, survey everything you wrote, staying in touch with what you find most interesting, and frame three or four possible guiding questions and/or WTF moments that might serve to organize your close reading when you revise it. A few examples:

What do the second two lines of “Western Wind” have to do with the first two lines?

Why does the speaker of Wyatt’s “They flee from me” present himself as harmless to the women who used to seek him – indeed, as their victim – and yet say categorically that they used to “put themself in danger” in approaching him?

The final couplet of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” by insisting that it immortalizes the beloved, actually emphasizes how quickly she will age and die – does the poem intend that contradiction?

I’ll read your draft with your questions in mind, asking, what in your close reading most warrants development, further exploration, if these are the questions you want to pursue? So please take time and care in framing them. They are how you will guide me in how to guide you.


To be honest – if you’ve made it this far – it’s a heavy-handed programmatic way to approach a poem. I’d much rather move lightly and fleetly over it, touching down here, there, as wish and whim would have it. But I’ve been given the task of teaching lit majors to analyze poetry. So I’ve taken the various things I’ve seen myself do with a poem and arranged them. I hope they own it and also resist it – dive into it and also through it.


[1]Our working term for aporias small and large, brief and enduring. I put it this way in the syllabus:

A WTF?! reaction [is a] spot where something strange and surprising (for you) happens, [and] you don’t know what to make of it, it confuses, irritates, and/or intrigues you. The secret to success as a literature student is turning towards these moments even though you want to turn away from them.

[2]I described to them here the bit of hot water Jill Bialosky’s got herself into.

Summer teaching once more

Decided last week to dumpster my course design for Intro to CrW. It’s gotten old and tired. Was real fresh and alive when I started it (as an overhaul like this one it happens) cuz I made it day by day in relation to what I sensed from my students, who they were, what gave them life. And then, over the next few years, I institutionalized it, why, cuz I belong to an institution, and it presses on me, walls, ceiling, floor, in the form of hours demands infighting and discouragement. Well fuck that shit. I can’t ask my students to keep it fresh if I don’t. So I’m pitching the design and going back to the unknowing my own work comes from.

It’s scarier and it burns more brain glucose, which I want to hoard for my own creative work, but I think a mistake we make in the profession is to feel we’re in a zero sum game. In fact if I’m feeling on a live edge teaching, that enlivens my creative activity, too. As I said to a friend at a little fest held this weekend to mark the vertical publication of the first part of SCRO, the visual poetry courses I’ve taught have fed and informed my own work in visual poetry – have made, in a sense, my current work possible.

So here’s the bit of my syllabus where I explain there’s no plan for the class.

(Overheard at Menace as I write: “Are you really worried about rhizomes?”)


Course Outline

There is none. I’ve taught this course many times and it’s grown hidebound. So I’m doing the same thing with my course design as I tell a student to do with a story or poem or essay when they’re bored with it: throw out your structure, your idea of where it should go, and discover from the materials at hand what it’s supposed to be. It’s scary fun and way more real, as a way to write, a way to teach.

We’re going to wing it, figuring out, class by class, what we’ll do during our time together, and what your assignments are for the next class. I’ll be making the decisions at first, but I expect that, as we come together as a crew, you’ll collaborate in the calls we make. Rest assured, we won’t be structureless; we’ll just discover as we go the structure natural to our being-together. And, by the end of our six weeks, you’ll have met and grappled with most or all of these creative writing constructs:

General

showing and telling
concrete significant details
triggering and generated subjects (Hugo)
diction and etymology
“the writer’s antennae”
using found material
revision and editing

Poetry

sounds
the poetic line
poetry and Poetry
imagery
simile and metaphor
metonymy
making sense less

Fiction

dialogue
characterization
point of view
story structure (inverted checkmark)
text and subtext (Hemingway’s “iceberg”)

Creative Nonfiction

scene and exposition
truth and truthiness
questions of ethics
nonfiction forms

That’s for the worrypants. May send ’em, first day, to Cage’s guidelines:

cagerulesteachersstudents

It’s all just organic form in pedagogy, not so scary.

Writing Exercise: Erasure, Interference, Noise, Distraction

Last exercise for my advanced creative non-fiction workshop. We’ve been reading Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary – riddled with redaction marks a government that couldn’t find him guilty of a damn thing, yet could not for 14 years see him to be innocent, saw fit to strike his voice through w/.

An ex on the eloquence of silence; on wrenching eloquence out of silencing.


First, to remind you of the assignment for your fourth and final essay, it’s

a text that incorporates erasure, interference, noise, or distraction. You can put a text of your own (it must be written for this course) under erasure like this or like this: ████. You can take another’s text and put it under erasure to elicit new meanings from it. You can do an audio essay and overlay a second track that makes your voice difficult or impossible to hear at key junctures. You can compose a hypertext that instead of offering a linear reading becomes a garden of forking paths. The possibilities are myriad. Crucial though is that your essay draw erasure, distortion, noise, or distraction into its formal body. In this way it becomes a study of how we make meaning at all.

For this exercise, make a first experiment towards that essay. No more than one page – if it’s on paper at all. I can’t imagine all the possibilities for you here. I can only say, I’m looking for language, written or spoken, that gets interfered with somehow, visually or aurally, in a way that sheds light on how we go about making meaning. (The redaction marks in Slahi’s book, included the way they are, do that, yes? How does Slahi insist on what he means, his humanity, when he’s shut up – imprisoned, silenced? He cracks jokes. He answers absurdity with absurdity. He writes, and gets his writing out there, replete with the redaction bars that speak his silencing.)

Learn too from examples posted – Johnson, Phillips, Bervin, Foer, Strickland, Wave Books. Ask yourself too, what’s missing from these examples that I wish were here? What could you add to this assemblage of interferences?

You could go entirely paperly, erase and/or illuminate a text, your own or another’s. If you erase someone else’s text, be sure to credit the source, and sure your work upon it’s transformative. You need not confine yourself to negation; consider illumination, á là Phillips; hands-on cutting or tearing, á là Foer; other ways of turning gap and omission into a sort of presence.

You need not pin yourself to paper either. I’m open to audio essays, hypertext essays, multimedia enterprises. Interference, noise, distraction can take the form – as we said today – of static, crowd noise, a robotic voice intoning “redacted,” many many things. (The MTA’s “mind the gap” comes to mind.) Our roundtables next week will be a chance to think through options.

I’d like to take these in Thursday, but if you are working off the page, and would like till next Tuesday to make that happen, I can give you till then.


I’m curious what they’ll come up with. It’s been a curious class, invented one week, enacted the next. Improvisatory. Creating a world one step ahead of what you see. I don’t mean I am, we are.

Messages across seas

Delighted to share with you a translation just now out in the wonderful journal Asymptote. I love this journal, its global intention attention & compass. Check out this map of their scope and multiplicity.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 7.07.20 PM
Click for a live version

My little poem is a pre-modern throwback in an issue otherwise on translation’s front edge. (Okay, there’s some Tzara, too, but he’s still.) Grateful they thought to find room for it. Thematically it does I guess fit an issue called “People from the In-between.” It’s got people at a loss, unbridgeable textual gaps, and runes – runes how to make meaning from which is all dispute.

Well see what you think it’s here. With floating footnotes, and the Old English, and me reading said Old English badly, should you wish to go there.

Whole issue’s rad. Especially worth your time and heart, the special feature on “literature from banned countries,” i.e. those seven or six singled out by the present US administration’s unconscionable incoherent & never mind that they’re unconstitutional travel bans. I’m having a little trouble finding the special section as a cluster, but here’s the headline piece, then you can just wander over borders, as surely mostly we should be.

Wander or sojourn or flee as our luck has it. I avoid the word “privilege” as calcified but I am luck-filled. Many on the map above are not. Many pressed against borders are getting fucked by the stick of the world. May you come to places of rest. You should have, & it’s in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Trumpwad, so you’re a signatory, you should have a place to live that’s safe for you to love & work & love more & live & die meaningful lives and deaths.

Didn’t expect to go there. (As I say always to my students, boringly to them, let the track of your writing startle you.) Got to get to work on something blah & bureaucratic, plan for the annual fundraising drive for the Zen centre I somehow ended up on the board of, & what why me. But reading this article in The New Yorker has shocked the living shit out of me.

These women and girls and men are moving up Africa along the old slave-trading routes. And what they endure on the journey and when they arrive, if they do arrive, seems to this far away safely sheltered reader impotently empathizing no less than what the slaves did in olden days when they were fuelling the economic growth of the Americas.

Got more on this. For instance bringing it to my nonfiction workshop’s notice, and putting it beside Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and his effort to broaden a indictment of systemic American racism into a critique of global inequality, including climate change. That’s for another post. God and damn it’s all connected. Where to snip the thread? Thank you friend. May I call you friend? If you’ve read this far.

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Can’t tell you how moved I am by this book. Opens my head and heart and spirit and helps me to love the great bawling mess of meat and lust and loss and peace all at once I am. I hope it speaks to my students also. Assigned it because they are, as a body, far more engaged with and alert to questions of gender, identity, fluidity, than I, and I wanted a book that would meet and maybe challenge us all there.

We’ll see how it goes next week. I’m guessing it will. Here are the assignments I put together for my creative nonfiction students this morning.

Journal no. 1

On page 5 Nelson makes the first reference to her book’s title. “Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use.” So we have an image of a voyaging entity that changes in all its parts and yet persists under a single name. And Nelson has named her book, not for the boat, but for those who voyage on it. What is she saying (proposing, hazarding, trying out) about love here? Is the image of the Argo, the Argonaut, applicable to anything else in or about the book?

Journal no. 2

The content of The Argonauts affirms fluidity over binaries and rigid categories – continuities. Gender is fluid. Eros itself is fluid, bonding lover to lover, parent to child, human to animal. Meanwhile the form of the book is full of discontinuities. Every time we move from one collage element to another, we leap across a gap. (Often even within a collage element, there are gaps to be leapt.) What do you make of this difference between the book’s content and its form? How might it serve Nelson’s purposes?

Writing no. 1

Begin a collage essay by writing two discrete (they need not be discreet) collage elements. Each can be about whatever you like, but they should be substantively different from each other, in content, technique, tone, theme, and/or diction. The differences between them should be alive – you, we, should feel a pulse of curiosity or excitement or WTF as we move from the one to the other. If you don’t feel that excitement, start over, because you’re not going to want to keep working with this material.  ¶ Other pointers. Remember the distinction between scene and exposition. When you’re doing scene, use your arsenal of fiction-writing techniques; rely on concrete significant details; embody your meanings in acts and events. When you’re doing exposition, avoid banal generalities, make your thinking interesting, fresh, alive, your own. Feel free to tear a page from Nelson and incorporate found materials – Deleuze, Irigaray, Plato, Lady Gaga.

Comedy, Tragedy, Romance

A handout for my Shakespeare students, late in the game, after we’ve teased a lot of it out in conversation. Trying to draw it together into a sort of whole, without making our thought boxes too rigid.


I. Comedy

Toward a Theory of Comedy

In our discussions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, we speculated that for something (a line, a conversation, a play as a whole) to be funny, three things need to be true:

  1. There needs to be incongruity – two meanings of a word that clash (a pun), or two conflicting desires in a character, or a situation in which we know something a character doesn’t (dramatic irony). An incongruity can be as small as a word or as big as the whole play.
  1. We need to feel that things will turn out okay. We can tell no one is going to die, and no one we like will end up worse than they started. A play can give us this feeling by invoking certain genre conventions of comedy. For instance, presented with lovers thwarted by a controlling father, we know we’re in a plot typical of romantic comedy. And when the lovers marry at the end, ideally as part of a multiple wedding (wild erotic possibilities set loose in the play, some of them quite transgressive, are here put back in their cages, or on their leashes) that plot structure is completed, and the genre confirmed.
  1. Our sense of fair play needs to be satisfied – characters will get about what they deserve. Again, genre conventions reassure us here, even when things are going badly for the good guys, and well for the bad.

Interestingly, tragedy differs from comedy mostly on the second point. Tragedy is full of incongruities, and the downfall of the tragic hero feels harsh to us, but not unjust (fair play). But we have a sense of large hidden forces arrayed against the hero and driving the action inexorably forward. This won’t end well and we know it from the first line or two. So the incongruities are mostly not funny, and the justness of the hero’s fate prompts sadness and seriousness, not exuberant good cheer.

Genre Conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy

The major conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy (adapted from Debora Schwartz’s page for ENG 339 at California Polytechnic State):

  1. The main action is about love.
  1. The would-be lovers must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being united in harmonious union. The ending frequently involves a parade of couples to the altar and a festive mood or actual celebration (expressed in dance, song, feast, etc.).
  1. Often it contains elements of the improbable, the fantastic, the supernatural, or the miraculous, e.g., unbelievable coincidences, improbable scenes of recognition/lack of recognition, willful disregard of the social order (nobles marrying commoners, beggars changed to lords), enchanted or idealized settings, supernatural beings (witches, fairies, gods and goddesses). The happy ending may be brought about through supernatural or divine intervention or may merely involve improbable turns of events.
  1. There is frequently a philosophical aspect involving weightier issues and themes: personal identity; the importance of love in human existence; the power of language to help or hinder communication; the transforming power of poetry and art; the disjunction between appearance and reality; the power of dreams and illusions.

II. Tragedy

Suspension of Disbelief

Right in front of you, a general named Othello is throttling his wife, Desdemona. Why don’t you call 911? Because you know it’s not real. But if you know it’s not real, why do you feel anything? Check your heart rate, your breathing, your muscle tension – you do feel something.

Drama depends on a suspension of disbelief. We believe and don’t believe that what’s happening is real. We know it’s real and we know it’s not real. We suspend our disbelief but our disbelief is still there. All dramatic forms depend on this paradox to work, but the paradox comes especially clear with tragedy, because the stakes are so high, and because in a theatre, there’s no screen to distance you from the action – only an invisible fourth wall some characters (e.g., Puck, Feste, Hamlet, Iago) may break.

Aristotle on Tragedy

Aristotle asked, why do we like to see things on stage, for instance King Oedipus turned to a beggar with his eyes gouged out, we wouldn’t want to see for real? In his Poetics he suggests two theories –

  1. Pedagogic. It gives us pleasure to learn, especially when we can learn about misfortune without suffering misfortune. Watching Othello, we can say, “ah, that’s what happens when you give in to jealousy,” or “so, that’s how it goes when you don’t listen to your suspicions about an underling,” or, “okay, that’s what eventually happens to someone from a marginalized group, no matter how well he fulfills the dominant culture’s demands of him.” By this theory, we know more about what it is to be alive, without having had to suffer (much) for the lesson.
  1. Cathartic. Catharsis means purgation. Tragedy arouses pity and fear in us through the action of the play and then discharges it through the resolution. What we see makes us sadder and wiser, but we also feel a kind of quiet and release. The Greek word katharsis had both a medical sense – purging, i.e., vomiting up something toxic – and a sacral sense, purification, i.e., being cleansed of impurities. Did Aristotle mean we’re purged of pity and fear the way a patient is purged of a poison, or we’re purified of pity and fear the way a religious observant is cleansed of obstructive emotions?

Aristotle said some conditions apply to tragedy, if learning or catharsis is to happen. We’ll leave aside most of them. The two we’ll make use of: the hero of the tragedy needs to be larger than life (“better than ordinary men”) but have a tragic flaw. He needs to be larger than life so we identify with and idealize him. (Catharsis only happens if we see ourselves in him.) He needs to have a tragic flaw so we can feel his downfall is just. (We can only learn from what we see if what we see is rational and understandable.) (It’s always, BTW, for Aristotle, a him, Antigone notwithstanding.)

I’m not saying Othello is an Aristotelian tragedy. I’m asking whether it is one. Is Othello a tragic hero? Is he larger than life? Is he brought down by a tragic flaw? (If you say societal forces outside him – “institutional racism” – are ultimately to blame, then no. If you say that that racism, internalized, is to blame, then – oh, an interesting edge we’re on, there.) Does the play raise pity and fear and then purge them? How are you left feeling at the end of a production of it? Does how you feel depend on the character of the production?


III. Some Notes on Romance

Our final play, The Tempest, is now called a romance, but that term wasn’t in use when the play was written and first performed. It was first published as a comedy. The rest of this section is adapted from Schwartz.

The modern term “romance” refers to a hybrid of comic and tragic elements. Because they combine both tragic and comic elements, John Fletcher called them “tragi-comedies.” According to Fletcher, a tragi-comedy “wants [lacks] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it [death], which is enough to make it no comedy.” Like comedy, romance includes a love-intrigue and culminates in a happy ending. Like tragedy, romance has a serious plot-line (betrayals, tyrants, usurpers of thrones) and treats serious themes; it is darker in tone (more serious) than comedy. While tragedy emphasizes evil, and comedy minimizes it, romance acknowledges evil – the reality of human suffering. 

Romance and Tragedy

Tragedy involves irreversible choices made in a world where time leads inexorably to the tragic conclusion. In romance, time seems to be “reversible”; there are second chances and fresh starts. As a result, categories such as cause and effect, beginning and end, are displaced by a sense of simultaneity and harmony.

Tragedy is governed by a sense of fate (Macbeth, Hamlet) or fortune (King Lear). In romance, the sense of destiny comes instead from Divine Providence. Tragedy depicts alienation and destruction, romance, reconciliation and restoration. In tragedy, characters are destroyed as a result of their own actions and choices; in romance, characters respond to situations and events rather than provoking them. Tragedy tends to be concerned with revenge, romance with forgiveness. Plot structure in romance moves beyond that of tragedy: an event with tragic potential leads not to tragedy but to a providential experience.

While tragedy deals with events leading up to individual deaths, romance emphasizes the cycle of life and death. While tragedy explores characters in depth (emphasis on individual psychology), romance focuses on archetypes, the collective and symbolic patterns of human experience.

Romance and Comedy

The “happy ending” of a romance bears a superficial resemblance to that of a comedy. But while the tone of comedy is genial and exuberant, romance has a muted tone of happiness – joy mixed with sorrow. Like comedies, romances tend to end with weddings, but the focus is less on the personal happiness of bride and groom (the culmination of an individual passion) than on healing rifts within the larger human community. Thus, whereas comedy focuses on youth, romance often has middle-aged and older protagonists in pivotal roles.

Compared to characters in a Shakespearean comedy (or tragedy), romance characters may seem shallow or one-dimensional. But they are not meant to be psychologically credible; their experiences have symbolic significance extending beyond the limits of their own lives and beyond rational comprehension. In romance, the emphasis shifts from individual human nature to Nature.

Other Features of Romance

Romance is unrealistic. Supernatural elements abound, and characters often seem “larger than life” (e.g., Prospero) or one-dimensional (e.g., Miranda and Ferdinand). Plots are not particularly logical. The action, serious in theme, subject matter and tone, seems to be leading to a tragic catastrophe until an unexpected trick brings the conflict to harmonious resolution. The “happy ending” may seem unmotivated or contrived. Realism is not the point. Romance requires us to suspend disbelief in the “unrealistic” nature of the plot and experience it on its own terms.