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Some very smart teachers I know (much smarter than me) think that this year’s HSC English Paper could possibly focus on the concept of identity as an aspect of belonging. Earlier this week I came across a series of images, Untitled Film Stills by Cindy Sherman, that encapsulate this theme brilliantly. Not only that, but thanks to the wonderful educators at MoMA Learning, there’s some pretty substantial study resources to go with them. Consider this image, Untitled Film Still #3:

cindy-sherman-untitled-film-still-3

 

What might you imagine about the subject’s sense of identity? How might this affect her sense of belonging? Are the objects around her significant? Do they symbolise anything about her life? She is looking away, what might be occurring off-camera? This photograph is a self-portrait of the artist. How might this knowledge affect your relationship with the image?

For a deeper discussion of this image in terms of the theme of identity, see this recording of a MoMA Google Hangout.

I also think this series of images could work well with another potential essay question: Barriers to belonging. Consider ideas of gender roles and social expectations, particularly if your core text is the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the film Strictly Ballroom.

 

The role of women:

  • “Caroline Beaufort possessed a mind of an uncommon mould.” (p26)

  • “the guardian angel of the afflicted” (p29) – Shelley reflects contextual values by portraying women as angelic helpers of men

Victor’s idyllic childhood with perfect parents

  • “Harmony was the soul of our companionship” (p32) – an example of romantic relationship that Victor has experienced first hand but fails to achieve for himself or to provide to his creation. [see post on Playing God in Frankenstein and Blade Runner]

Victor’s passion, however, is for knowledge, not love

  • “I was more deeply smitten with the thirst for knowledge” (p32)

  • “I delighted in investigating their causes. The world was to me a secret which I desired to divine.” (p32) – “smitten” “delight” “desire” – romantic imagery but Victor’s passions are misplaced

Clerval as a foil to Victor

  • “deeply read in books of chivalry and romance” (p33)

  • “occupied himself with the moral relations of things” (p34) – highlighting that Victor did not consider these at all

  • It is the loss of companionship that allows Victor to lose his moral compass, “I, who had ever been surrounded by amiable companions…I was now alone.” (p43)

Fate

  • “Natural philosophy is the genius that regulated my fate” (p35) – “genius” here could mean spirit

  • “immutable laws of Destiny” (p39) – note the personification of Destiny through the use of capitalisation

  • “chance – or rather evil influence, the Angel of Destruction – led me first to M. Krempe, professor of natural philosophy.” (p44) – it seems to me that Victor’s continual references to fate are an attempt to avoid responsibility for his actions.

Science

  • “Sir Isaac Newton is said to have avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great and unexplored ocean of truth.” (p36) – for a neat contextual link to Blade Runner,

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos[first published 1980]

Walton feels alone, foreshadowing the loneliness of the creature:

  • “most severe evil, I have no friend” (p8) If loneliness is the most severe evil, what does that suggest about Victor’s treatment of his creation?

The positive qualities of humanity:

  • “gentle yet courageous…of a cultivated as of a capacious mind” (p8)

  • “some feelings, unallied to the dross of human nature, beat even in these rugged bosoms” (p9) – “dross” is also a biblical allusion, see Proverbs 25:4

  • “retains some of the noblest endowments of humanity” (p9)

Poetic allusions:

  • repetition of the word “romantic” (pp8-10)

  • “Ancient Mariner” (p11) – too obvious to be an allusion, this is really a reference to Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’

  • “I shall kill no albatross” (p11) – allusion to the above poem

The idea of the Noble Savage

  • “southern cape of Africa or America?” (p12)

Walton’s first glimpse of the creature…:

  • “a being which had the shape of a man” (p15) – as distinct from an actual man

  • this view led to a sense of “unqualified wonder” (p16)

…Which contrasts with Walton’s first impression of Victor:

  • “a human being” (p16)

  • “He was not as the other traveller seemed to be, a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island [I suspect this is an allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest] but an European.” (p16)

  • “I begin to love him as a brother” (p19)

  • “noble creature” (p19)

Victor’s description of the creature…:

  • “the daemon” (p18)

…And its dehumanising effect on him:

  • “inhuman in me to trouble you” (p18)

Ethics (or Shelley’s message to the reader):

  • “One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought.” (p20)

  • “You seek for knowledge and wisdom…a serpent to sting you.” (pp22-23) – biblical allusion to Genesis 3.

The setting – sublime:

  • “wild and mysterious regions” contrasted against the “tamer scenes of nature” (p23)

Fate and foreshadowing (expressed in high modality language):

  • “nothing can alter my destiny” (p23)

  • “irrevocably determined” (p23)

I recently discovered an old notebook filled with my own study notes on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Rather than simply throw it out, I thought I would type the notes and share them here.

[Page nos refer to the BOS preferred edition]

The Northwest Passage – literally a trade route through the Arctic Ocean; however, during Shelley’s time its existence remained theoretical (it was discovered in 1902 and has only really been useful as a sea lane since 2009). In this letter it represents the hope that there is still room for discovery and heroism in the world.

Foreshadowing

This technique is popular in gothic novels and gothic novels were popular during this era. In fact, they were so popular that parodies such as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey were written and published before Frankenstein.

  • Margaret’s “evil foreboding” (p3)

  • Walton’s “foretaste” (p3)

Dichotomies

This is a technique where opposites are juxtaposed. I think this really captures something of the depth and complexity of Romantic thought.

  • “frost and desolation” vs “beauty and delight” (p3)

  • “courage and resolution” vs “spirits…depressed” (p6)

  • “soon or never” (p7)

  • success vs failure (p6)

Biblical Allusion

This has to be the number one technique in Frankenstein (and it’s prevalent in Blade Runner too).

  • “eternal light” “all mankind to the last generation” “heaven” “soul”(p4)

  • “paradise” “consecrated” (p5)

  • “St Petersburg and Archangel” (p6)

  • “blessings” “testify” (p7)

Shelley also puts the Christian language of the bible in a broader spiritual and Classical context.

  • “temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated” (p5)

Science and Technology

  • “intellectual eye” (p4) also keep an eye out for the eye motif in both texts

  • “maths, medicine, physical science” (p5)

 

If you haven’t found it yet, go check out Brainpickings, particularly, for those of you studying Hamlet, this article about Kurt Vonnegut and the shape of stories, which contains an interesting summary and evaluation of the play. Brainpickings can also help you to find unique related texts and give you interesting insights into genre, ways of thinking, and creative writing.

I’ve been reading about the idea of the flipped classroom, where the traditional lecture-style elements of lessons are assigned for homework (students watch videos) and homework tasks such as answering questions, are completed in class. This appeals to me for a couple of reasons: students can absorb lectures at their own pace, they can rewind, pause or fast forward the videos, depending their own prior knowledge and interest; the flipped model also frees up class time for one-on-one interaction, hands on activities, group collaboration, and, for an HSC English classroom, exam practice.

For students wanting expand their understanding of this most rich and ambiguous of texts, or teachers wanting to explore flipping some elements, here are some of the best video resources (that I’ve found) on Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

One of the most useful videos I have ever come across for helping students to understand the essential themes and enduring resonance of Hamlet is Hamlet: A Critical Guide, featuring Professors Stanley Wells and Russell Jackson.

Harold Bloom is one of the most influential literary critics alive today. Any student approaching Module B with any seriousness must have come across his name. His 40 minute lecture for Yale University begins, “There is no god but god and his name is William Shakespeare,”  which proclaims at least one perspective on the enduring nature of Hamlet.

In Module B it is important for students to develop their own interpretations of the text. This means wide reading (and viewing). But it’s not good enough to read a few critics and parrot their ideas in your responses. You need to use your reading to test your own ideas and develop a personal reading of the play. This will lead to well thought out essays that address the central question of this module: why is play that was penned four hundred years ago in a faraway country still so relevant? Here are some readings and questions to get you started.

The Prince or the Poem by CS Lewis

Lewis argues that audiences (especially critics) focus too much on psycho-analysing the character of Hamlet and not enough on appreciating the play as a whole. Also, that people tend to read the character as a reflection of themselves. Is it natural for an audience to empathise with a character? What is it about Hamlet as a character that evokes your sympathy? Are there elements of the play that you’ve been ignoring? What are they and how do they add to the experience of the text as a whole?

Hamlet and his Problems by TS Eliot

This is a bit of a controversial one: Eliot argues that Hamlet is a bad play; that it fails as a work of literature. His argument is a bit complex but as its core, Eliot says that Hamlet overreacts to the situation with which he is faced, thereby destroying any credibility in the character or the play. How might Eliot’s own context have influenced his view? How does your context and life experience shape your enjoyment of the play?

Hamlet in Shakespearean Tragedy by AC Bradley

Bradley argues that the cause of Hamlet’s delay (one of the central questions of this text) is not external difficulties but an internal drive to achieve justice. Many critics focus on this aspect of the play, perhaps because Hamlet himself agonises over it so much in his soliloquies. Here are some other causes to consider as you come to your own conclusions (don’t feel constrained to pick just one; it’s a complex play):

  • Religious conflict: Hamlet might be a protestant, which makes accepting some of the ghost’s story difficult; it also constrains him from actions such as revenge and suicide – Stephen Greenblatt
  • Oedipus complex: I hesitate to put this one in because I personally think it’s rubbish but you’re going to come across it so  you might as well consider it – Sigmund Freud and just about every stage and film director of the play from 1920 to 2001
  • Identity crisis: Hamlet struggles between his identity as a Renaissance man and his duty as a Medieval son to take revenge, it is only once this crisis is resolved that Hamlet can act – Stanley Wells
  • Indecision: pure and simple – Laurence Olivier
  • Extreme self-awareness: Hamlet fears that in killing Claudius, he will become like him – Kenneth Brannagh (implied visually in the 1996 film)
  • Surveillance: Hamlet is being watched constantly and must throw the court off the scent before he can act – Gregory Doran and Michael Almereyda (implied visually in the 2001 and 2009 films respectively)

As you consider Hamlet, consider this: it is fundamentally an existential play in that it deals with question of human existence.

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