The traditional understanding of “tragedy” is that the tragic hero has some terrible flaw that leads to his or her downfall. Hamlet seems to subvert that understanding somewhat. What is Hamlet’s flaw? To what extent is his flaw the reason for the tragic events of the play? What else contributes to the tragedy?

As a tragic hero, Hamlet definitely evades the quick, simple labeling that can be applied to Shakespeare’s other flawed protagonists like Romeo, King Lear, and Othello.  Initial evaluation seems to point to indecisiveness and hesitation as Hamlet’s primary flaws; for example, it is conceivable that the tragic ending of the play might have been avoided had Hamlet chosen to kill Claudius in the chapel or conceived of a plot less suspicious and complex than the elaborate set up of the Mousetrap to determine Claudius’s guilt.  On a deeper level, however, all these decisions or lack thereof ultimately stem from Hamlet’s tendency to obsessively analyze and debate the merit of every possible course of action, leading him to make few effectual choices throughout the play.  This inclination to philosophize rather than act is shown not only when Hamlet debates when Claudius will be “fit and seasoned for his passage” (III.iii.86), but also when Hamlet considers matters mostly unconnected to his revenge.  For example, Hamlet contemplates “whether [it is] nobler in the mind” to struggle with harsh reality or end his pain through suicide (III.i.57), which, upon examination, is a somewhat strange and impractical way to consider ending one’s own life.  Rather than consider the repercussions of suicide on his family and county or the fact that Claudius would probably get off scot-free without Hamlet’s presence and knowledge, Hamlet chooses to focus a large amount of time and thought on the philosophical implications of suicide rather than the real effects such an action may have.  This penchant for fanciful pondering eventually delays Hamlet enough that he is unable to stay under his uncle-dad’s radar, and once Claudius catches onto Hamlet’s act, Hamlet’s demise becomes almost inevitable.

It’s difficult to call this a flaw in a strict sense; in general, careful consideration of outcomes, well-developed stances on ethical issues, and a generally discerning mind are considered to be strengths rather than weaknesses, but these characteristics afforded Hamlet only delays and setbacks.  While the saddening (and frustrating) aspect of most of Shakespeare’s tragedies seems to be the ease with which catastrophe could have been averted, in Hamlet, the final events seem less avoidable, especially the fates of characters like Ophelia, because the protagonist seems to be doing almost everything in his power to make wise decisions, short of actually exposing or killing Claudius.  Hamlet’s intense planning also causes him to fall short when he finally has a chance to reveal Claudius’s secret to someone in a position of power, Gertrude.  His strange behavior and the suggestion of Hamlet’s insanity discredit his claims about Claudius’s deeds in the eyes of Gertrude, who reports to Claudius after the confrontation in her bedroom that Hamlet is “mad as the sea and wind when both contend/ who is mightier” (IV.i.7-8).  While Hamlet’s plan to feign insanity as his cover may have seemed a clever idea early on, the setup ultimately backfires on him, leaving the audience to wonder whether Hamlet’s fate may have been better had he taken the more straightforward (albeit difficult and dangerous) route of plainly exposing the murder.

A not-analysis.

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.24.06 PM
Number 1A – Jackson Pollock (1948)

Let’s not try to pretend here that we’re nine-year-olds looking for shapes in the clouds or that if we cross our eyes just so, some identifiable object will emerge from this tangle of lines and blobs. This is a drip painting, a form created much in the way you would think based on it’s appearance, by pouring and splattering paint, making any search for a single, definite purpose futile. The job of a viewer of abstract art, especially of the more esoteric pieces, is not to analyze and search for meaning, figures, or message, it is to feel the art. I feel the need to defend this notion against naysayers who call this sort of thing pretentious: my personal definition of art, which applies to writing, performance, painting, and beyond, is anything that makes an audience feel “some type of way”. By this definition, each person’s experience of what is art and what it means can and should vary based on previous exposure and preferences. Personally, abstract art has always seemed a bit baffling, but this piece seems to suggest dancing around the canvas, adding paints on impulse – in short, freedom.

Nancy Sullivan wrote the following poem entitled “Number 1 by Jackson Pollock (1948)” inspired by this piece:

No name but a number.
Trickles and valleys of paint
Devise this maze
Into a game of Monopoly
Without any bank. Into
A linoleum on the floor
In a dream. Into
Murals inside of the mind.
No similes here. Nothing
But paint. Such purity
Taxes the poem that speaks
Still of something in a place
Or at a time.
How to realize his question
Let alone his answer?

Sullivan dismisses attempts to forcefully rationalize the piece, catching the reader off guard by calling to mind commonplace objects and concepts – Monopoly and linoleum flooring – in unfamiliar contexts – without money or in a dream, respectively. The response she believes the piece prompts takes viewers out of their comfort zones of objective reality and into the realm of imagination. Her final rhetorical question addresses just this fact: we will never know precisely what Pollock was thinking when he was creating this piece, so meaning must be derived on an individual basis. She goes on to say that even her own poem does the artwork a disservice, “speak[ing] still of something in a place or a time”, still trying to put some words to an indescribable experience and asserting her opinion about the piece…

…which makes me feel like I should stop writing before I mar your experience of Pollock’s work even more than I already have.


1 It really bothers me that I’m analyzing something that says not to analyze something else. It just feels off.

Fair Ophelia.

(c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This piece, titled Ophelia, was painted by Arthur Hughes in 1852 when he was only 20 years old and is now housed at the Manchester City Art Gallery.  Hughes depicts the offstage action that precedes Ophelia’s death as told by Queen Gertrude in Act IV Scene 7:

There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream:
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

The scene in Hughes’s painting is true to Gertrude’s description with its reflective stream and leaning willow tree, and the verticals created by the birch and other trees further back1 serve to frame the primary figure of the piece, Ophelia. What makes this depiction distinct to me is Ophelia’s gaunt, girlish appearance: her thin arms and shoulders, large eyes, and posture make her appear more like a preteen than a 20-something2. This, along with her white dress and overall pallor, is clearly meant to underline her purity. Indeed, throughout Hamlet, Ophelia seems more often than not to be a victim of the plotting and falseness of others, making her insanity and eventual death seem completely needless and avoidable had she only been clued in to any of the countless schemes of those around her. While I’m not an authority on the subject, it would seem to me that Ophelia’s fall suggests the larger truth that, in some cases, the completely innocent can suffer at the hands of those with less untainted intentions.



Another aspect of the piece that interests me is Ophelia’s expression, which does show some sense of vacancy but still seems peaceful; her slightly parted lips make it easy to imagine her murmuring or quietly singing to herself as she tosses flowers into the water below.  This image agrees with Ophelia’s behavior in her final moments on stage, singing senseless songs and handing out suspiciously meaningful flowers to the other characters on stage, perhaps subconsciously calling them out for each of their parts in her descent into madness.

1 Seriously what are those trees? Hamlet takes place in Denmark, but the middle ground of the painting looks like it belongs in Florida.

2 Later on in his career, Hughes created another painting of Ophelia, this time depicting her as a more typically-figured woman.

Who cares about Francisco?

When the first character on stage is missing his name, you know you’ve found something especially bad.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the First Quarto of Hamlet, also known as the “Bad Quarto” because it is just that inadequate. While it was originally assumed to be an early draft of the play, evidence suggests that the First Quarto is actually a “pirated” text, extracted from a bribed member of the play’s original cast.

The first difference between the First Quarto and the accepted text that stands out to me (besides the general horribleness) is the differences in the names of the characters. While the anonymity of Francisco doesn’t affect the play much, the series of naming discrepancies that follow became downright distracting. In the First Quarto:

  • Francisco is simply First Sentinel
  • Voltemand and Cornelius are Voltemar and Cornelia (maybe the only actor left for Cornelius’s part was a 12-year-old boy?)
  • Polonius is … Corambis?
  • Reynaldo is Montano (someone’s seen Othello recently)
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Rossencraft and Gilderstone (come on, not even close)
  • Gertrude is Gertred
  • Etc.

The First Quarto has a general sense of abruptness and lack of explanation. For example, the stage directions given for the prologue to “The Murder of Gonzago” is sadly lacking a whole section in which the poisoner of the Player King woos the grieving queen. The lack of this parallel to the reality of Hamlet’s situation makes the play within a play less meaningful to the audience and, we can assume, to Claudius and Gertrude.

For the most part, the missing lines in the First Quarto don’t destroy the general course of the plot, but their absence does diminish the brooding mood of the play. For example, note the many lines missing from the first exchange between Hamlet and the Ghost:

First Quarto:
Hamlet I’ll go no farther. Whither wilt thou lead me?
Ghost Mark me.
Hamlet I will.
Ghost I am thy father’s spirit

Shakespeare’s original:
Hamlet Whither wilt thou lead me? Speak; I’ll go no further.
Ghost Mark me
Hamlet I will
Ghost My hour is almost come,
When I to sulf’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
Hamlet Speak. I am bound to hear.
Ghost So are thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
Hamlet What?
Ghost I am thy father’s spirit

While it becomes clear later on in the scene that Hamlet plans to avenge his father’s death, the Ghost’s proclamation that Hamlet will be driven to revenge, which is missing from the First Quarto, makes the truth he is about to tell Hamlet all the more shocking. The pervasive omission of these small but significant sections throughout the play make the First Quarto quite clearly inferior to the original text.


For another erroneous but quite entertaining take on Hamlet, may I suggest:

Comparing Shakespeare.

In anticipation of the Cushing Memorial Library’s display of a First Folio , here’s a look at a different versions of a passage from Othello, Act V Scene 2.

First Folio – State Library of New South Wales

Oth. Haue you pray’d to night, Defdemon?

Def. I my Lord

Oth. If you bethinke your felfe of any Crime
Vnreconcil’d as yet to Heauen, and Grace,
Solicite for it ftraight.

Def. Alacke, my Lord,
What may you meane by that?

Oth. Well, do it, and be breefe, I will walke by:
I would not kill thy vnprepared Spirit.
No, Heauens fore-fend) I would not kill thy Soule.


Second Folio – State Library of New South Wales

Oth. Have you pray’d tonight Defdemon?

Def. I my Lord.

Oth. If you bethinke your felfe of any Crime
Vnreconcil’d as yet to heaven, and Grace,
Solicite for it ftraight.

Def. Alacke, my Lord,
What may you meane by that?

Oth. Well, doe it, and be briefe, I will walke by?
I would not kill thy unprepared Spirit,
No, (Heavens fore-fend) I would not kill thy foule.


Quarto I – The British Library

Oth. Haue you prayed tonight, Defdemona?

Def. I my lord.

Oth. If you bethinke your felfe of any crime,
Vnrecconcil’d as yet to heauen and grace,
Sollicite for it ftraite.

Def. Alas my Lord, what may you meane by that?

Oth. Well doe it, and be briefe, I will walke by,
I would not kill thy vnprepared fpirit,
No, heauen fore-fend, I woud not kill thy foule.


Modern Translation– ed. Alvin Kernan

Othello. Have you prayed tonight, Desdemon?

Desdemona.                                                                 Ay, my lord.

Othello. If you bethink yourself of any crime
Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace,
Solicit for it straight.

Desdemona. Alack, my lord, what may you mean by that?

Othello. Well, do it, and be brief; I will walk by.
I would not kill thy unpreparéd spirit.
No, heavens forfend! I would not kill thy soul.


1. Some letters are not what they seem

If something looks like it should be an s and it’s not (for example in Desdemona’s name), it should be. This character is a long s, which looks like an f in print, but doesn’t have the hash mark. This letter was used in place of a lowercase s in the beginning and middle of words. The only word using the regular lowercase s in this passage is the word “Alas” in the Quarto. Thankfully, the long s fell out of use in the early 19th century.

Also, there seemed to have been some disagreement about the difference between vs and us. That generally wasn’t too hard to figure out though.

2. Spelling and punctuation are hard, apparently

The First and Second Folio are full of strange punctuation marks, extra parentheses and an out of place colon in the First, and a stray question mark in the second. (Apparently Othello may or may not want to walk around while Desdemona prays.) There are also some comically altered spellings, notable among them “breefe” instead of brief, “I” in place of ay, and “straite” instead of straight. Considering, however, that these letters had to be put into place manually for every page of every different book printed at the time, the mistakes become much more understandable.

Farewell to Starman.

So which of you is the real David Bowie?… oh…


A google image search for “David Bowie” returns a host of dissimilar faces, some only identifiable as pictures of Bowie by his left eye. Just as his personal styles has changed over his decades-long career, Bowie’s musical style was also in constant development. While there is no song or album that is quintessentially David Bowie (he dipped a toe in almost everything), I’ll be looking at one of his most well-known songs and one of my personal favorites, Space Oddity (1969), in memory of that eclectic but nonetheless exceptional artist.


Space Oddity – David Bowie

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom (Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six)
Commencing countdown, engines on (Five, Four, Three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (Two, One, Liftoff)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in the most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you…

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

While this song outwardly appears to be about an astronaut who finds himself feeling weirdly at home in space, the lyrics are widely accepted to describe Bowie himself (or any rising star, for that matter) who is just beginning to experience the world of stardom. Major Tom’s physical height above the rest of the world is heavily suggestive of Bowie’s growing fame, and questions about “whose shirts1 you wear” further suggest the public’s interest in his personal life. However, Tom’s remark that “the stars” (as in celebrities) “look very different” suggests that fame is not what it seems to outsiders: in fact, it is alienating as indicated by Major Tom’s loss of contact with Ground Control, drifting off into space, and his helplessness (“and there’s nothing I can do”) to stop himself from floating away. This view frames Spaces Oddity as a sort of soft and still somewhat unaware prequel to Fame (1975), a cry out against the manipulative and heartless treatment of great artists by their managers and labels.



1 “Shirts” is probably a reference to sports teams, but asking about his actual shirts would also qualify as invasive, actually, even more so

“Honest Iago” indeed.

From Othello, Act I Scene 3. Othello’s “trial” is over, and all have left the chamber but honest Iago and sniveling Roderigo.

Roderigo. Iago?
Iago. What say’st thou, noble heart?
Roderigo. What will I do, think’st thou?
Iago. Why, go to bed and sleep.
Roderigo. I will incontinently1 drown myself.
Iago. If thou dost, I shall never love thee after. Why,
thou silly gentleman?
Roderigo. It is silliness to live when to live is torment;
and then have we a prescription to die when death is
our physician.
Iago. O villainous! I have looked upon the world for
four times seven years, and since I could distinguish
betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man
that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say2 I
would drown myself for the love of a guinea hen,
I would change my humanity with a baboon.
Roderigo. What should I do? I confess it is my shame
to be so fond, but it is not in my virtue3 to amend it.
Iago. Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus,
or thus4. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which
our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant
nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme,
supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with
many–either to have it sterile with idleness or
manured with industry–why, the power and corri-
gible authority of this lies in our wills. If the bal-
ance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise
another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of
our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous
conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging
motions, our carnal stings or unbitten lusts,
whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect
or scion.



incontinently: immediately †






2Ere I would… baboon: I would sooner be a baboon than die for a woman I can’t have.


3it is not in my virtue: I lack strength of will

4‘Tis in… or thus: How we each turn out is up to ourselves alone.












In summary…
Roderigo is distraught that Brabantio (warily) blessed his daughter Desdemona’s marriage to Othello, and contemplates drowning himself‡ out of grief. Iago, being his gleefully devious and regular self, comforts Roderigo like any “good pal” would, by advising him to get a grip and insulting his weird obsession with Desdemona.

About that…
Iago reveals quite a bit about his deceptive nature in his little monologue, which immediately precedes the “put money in thy purse” speech. The dismissive attitude with which Iago regards Roderigo’s suffering (for which Iago is definitely partially to blame) is chilling, not only because he downplays Roderigo’s pain, likening women to guinea hens††, but more importantly because the general gist of Iago’s advice is… actually kind of good. Therein lies the scariest part of Iago’s personality: he is able to spin the look of situations into exactly what he wants them to appear as, with vivid rhetoric like the mind-garden metaphor, deceiving unfortunate Roderigo with a semblance of friendliness and ease. This facade causes Roderigo to trust Iago so much that he will do any stupid thing Iago tells him to, for example, putting all his money in his purse.

Finally, the idea Iago expresses of controlling one’s own destiny by any means available, particularly the more devious ones, is probably similar to the advice he is giving to himself about rising in the ranks of the Venetian army. In this case, Iago is definitely taking the natural pursuits of one’s own interests way too far.


† incontinent… heh… yeah that’s bad

‡ apparently the canals in Venice are pretty gross, so… bad way to go

†† :/ nope


On The Martian.

Andy Weir’s episodic survival novel The Martian has gained international interest after the release of a film adaptation of the same name starring the always in-demand Matt Damon. Here, I’ll be covering both, their differences, and probably spoiling them a little bit. Sorry.

The basic plots of the two are generally parallel. At some point in the not-so-distant future, astronaut-botanist Mark Watney is left for dead on the planet Mars after he is impaled by a piece of flying debris in a dust storm and the rest of the Ares III crew is forced to leave the planet without him. With only his wit, determination, and copious amounts of disco music, Watney surmounts an endless barrage of challenges and complications to establish sources of food, communication with NASA, and a dangerous escape plan, which eventually earns him a safe return to Earth.

Much of the pleasure of reading Weir’s novel is in the careful attention to detail and extensive research behind Mark’s immense resourcefulness. The novel’s plausibility is expanded by the depiction of the sassy and intelligent Mark, whose tongue-in-cheek humor and realistic emotions and reactions provide a welcome contrast to the painstaking detail of his troubleshooting. These two elements, while present, are both sadly lacking in the film adaptation. This along with a lack of development in supporting characters, an excessive focus on events happening on Earth, the censorship of a small book’s worth of expletives, an unexceptional soundtrack1, and the half-baked feel, fabrication, or entire omission of many plot elements (rover modifications, the trip to Schiaparelli, Beck-Johanssen romance2, etc.) make the movie pale in comparison to Weir’s original.

But of course, it’s very easy to find fault in a two hour-long movie attempting to cover a 400-page novel while remaining palatable to a wider, less scientifically inclined audience. The greatest asset of the movie was, as one may expect, its visuals. Beautiful but expected CGI aside, the movie was able to invoke a graver atmosphere than the book at times, for example when Watney exits the shower and we are able to see what heavy labor and strict rationing of food has done to his body and his once-resilient expression over a seven-month gap in the movie’s course.

As a general rule, books provide a fuller and more immersive experience than their movie counterparts, and The Martian is no exception. That being said, both are, in my opinion, definitely worth experiencing.


1 unless you’re Commander Lewis

2 what happened to “don’t tell anyone I liked it”?!


Life change: Grendel.

After reading and thinking about a book like John Gardner’s Grendel, it’s only natural to wonder about the author’s intentions in writing. Fortunately, we have access to some such information through Gardner’s letter in response to Susie West and three of her students who wrote essays regarding Grendel.

One of the most important points Gardner makes in his letter is that experiencing art is an individual undertaking, for one work can have variable effects on readers of different maturities searching for different kinds of experiences1. I think this point is pretty self-evident and not contradicted by the insights Gardner offers throughout his letter, considering that the students have apparently already put significant independent thought into the book.

One particularly clarifying statement Gardner made about the book was that, in writing his version of Gren’s death, Gardner did mean to convey Beowulf as Gren’s deliverer. By forcing Gren to recognize that, through approaching understanding of his place in the world from such a negative angle, he has become insensitive, condescending, and brutish, Beowulf gives Gren release from his tormented life, if only for a few moments. This is not to say that Gren is completely to blame, however, for his fate; it just seems all-around unfortunate that the dragon was the first “absolute truth teller” as Gardner calls him that Gren encountered in life. Reading this was particularly pleasing to me, as those who heard my spiel in class discussion probably understand2.

It’s also worth noting that, while Gardner did seem to make something of a jab at the student essays, I’d wager that he didn’t receive any sort of satisfaction from being “sassy”, as his comments have only half jokingly been referred to in class. If Gardner is as thoughtful a man as we should take authors of philosophical novels like Grendel to be, he probably had no malicious intent in pointing out the students’ misunderstandings about the book. Indeed, the reader who thought, essentially, that Gardner embraced existentialism was in great need of some… instruction. In explaining his views on the question Grendel addresses, whether personal values are still warranted with the understanding that all existences and memories will eventually reach their ends, Gardner probably meant to offer guidance toward the kinds of realizations he really wanted to promote in his writing.


1 For instance, those of us who read SparkNotes rather than the novel were probably not searching for much of an experience at all.

2 I still love you, Yusha. But yeah gg get wrecked.

I tried…

Sinking into the Leopard Pillow
Gillian Conoley, 1955

I threw out everything that didn’t give me a spark
and hung all the whites on the table.
Greens and deep dirt browns and grays.
The sensory titillations of the day
entered each limb’s phantom collapse and gait, tremor are you there?
See until you are gone and there is only what you are seeing.
Just trying that meant yesterday.
What to do today. Falls the shadow.

To be completely honest, I felt like most of the poems sent through the “Poem-A-Day” service are way out of my league content-wise, but I’m giving this one a shot. Here goes…

To start, the author says of this poem:

“I was reading through one of the unlined, black-covered, artist sketchbooks I’ve scribbled in since I first began to write. The books are very messy, mostly fragments in all directions, but when I came upon these lines, they were all by themselves, on one page. I read the page and thought, ‘That’s a poem,’ and then all at once the title came to me. This poem reminds me how companionable writing is, how it’s always there, if you’re patient enough, and remember to look for it.”

— Gillian Conoley

Interesting note, but not all that helpful in deciphering the poem’s meaning.

The first couple lines sound to me like someone laying out clothes that should be fresh and clean but seeing that they are dark and dirty in color. They might be a metaphor for the things the speaker “threw out” in the first lines: these things were ideas, experiences, and dreams the speaker had that no longer held as much meaning to her as they once did.

To be honest,  I’m completely in the dark about the “limb’s phantom collapse and gait.” It sounds a bit like word vomit that would mean a lot to some people, but not much to me… sorry, poetry; I still think you’re cool.

The final few lines seem to channel “carpe diem,” directly addressing the audience to help the point hit home. The sudden change from first person to direct address may be intended to remind the audience that they must seize what they care about, and every day not spent doing so goes to waste.