A glorious, glorious Monday!
That’s what I said to myself this morning at 5:35 when my alarm went off. I can’t even tell you how much I love to wake up each morning and realize that a brand new day, full of possibility and wonder, lies ahead.
No, seriously. I can’t tell you. Please stop asking. Moving on…
Today we finished of the first acts of Othello and Hamlet, respectively. I’m finding some pretty intense connections between these two plays that I hadn’t thought about before, and I’m really learning a lot from teaching this semester. I guess that’s a good thing, but one might legitimately wonder, If the the teacher’s learning, who’s teaching the students? Yeah, it’s a “Who will watch the watchers” kind of thing, if you really think about it. Or maybe it’s more of “If a tree falls in the forest” type of thing.” No, that’s not it, either.
Ahem. A few notes:
Act 1 establishes the major themes of the play. Hm. I don’t like the word “themes” for Hamlet. It’s not like anybody really knows what exactly this play is about. Unless you say it’s about “mystery,” or “ambiguity,” or “unknowingness.” Those are all just fancy ways to say we don’t know exactly what Shakespeare meant, and we like it that way.
This “theme” is introduced in the very first line of the play, when a sentry asks “Who’s there?” This is a recurring question throughout the play, and the various answers to this question–whether we’re talking about a ghostly apparition or a shriek from behind a curtain–are always crucial.
Another “themish” thing that kicks off in Act 1 is the idea of Deception. (Or is it Deceit? I’m going with Deception.) We spent some time talking specifically about Polonius’ big speech in Act 1 scene 3. A lot of people over the years have quoted from this speech in giving advice to young people about how to live.( Polonius himself is advising his own young son, Laertes, about how to conduct himself when he goes back to school in France.) But here’s the rub: I think Polonius’ advice is ambiguous at best, and possibly even an outright lesson in how to deceive. I’m not going to expound upon the details here, but go back and look at the speech and see how many times he advises Laertes to manipulate and use the “truth” to the advantage of his “own self.”
Act 1 of Othello isn’t quite the explosive roller coaster ride that Hamlet is, but it’s pretty great in its own way. The main point of interest in today’s reading was our introduction to Shakespeare’s arch villain, Iago. Iago has two speeches in act one in which he explains his view of life and other humans. Basically, it boils down to the fact that Iago is a cynic who believes that, ultimately, he and every other human is out to promote only their own welfare. (See the nice connection to Polonius there–“to thine own self be true” and all that”?) Because of this outlook, Iago doesn’t care what he does to other people as long as he gets what he wants. And what he wants is a promotion that someone else–Othello’s old buddy Cassio–already got. Iago is such a great character because he’s smart, and also totally aware of the consequences of his actions, yet he finds reasons to justify what he does. Even in the first day of reading, we’ve already started a few discussions in class about why Iago does what he does, and how his actions illuminate things we see in our own lives.
We also discussed the idea of “foils” in Shakespeare. In literature, a foil is a character that the reader is mean to compare with another character–to compare and contrast the actions, attitude, and outcomes of the two people. I suggested today that Iago is a foil for Othello in that they are opposites in almost any way you can think of. More on this another day, but I just wanted to get everyone started thinking about this
For those of you reading Othello, after the reading and discussion, we took the rest of class to do our first speech translation. The worksheet (with complete instructions) is available for download, below.