Student Diary: Tragedy - Print, Not IRL

What's it like to take a self-directed class online? This series gives you a glimpse into the process. blogger Sarah Wright is taking a Shakespeare class from, and is documenting her trials and successes to share with you.

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By Sarah Wright Shakespeare Hamlet

Week Seven, Unit Three

I'm done with the unit on comedy, and now I move on to unit 3 of's English 401: Shakespeare class. Unit 3 focuses on tragedy, the counterpart to comedy. I can't say I'm exactly in the mood for tragedy right now. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and the rain and lack of sun at this time of year make everything seem gloomier. It'd be nice to curl up with a nice light comedy, but so it goes. I have to deal with what I'm given.

And, to be fair, it's not as if I'm being given trash here. The tragedy unit focuses on Hamlet and Macbeth, two of Shakespeare's most famous plays. As I mentioned before, these are two that I've read before. My hope at the outset was that my familiarity with the plots of these two plays would make it easier for me to understand what's going on. It's not something I admit with pride, but I do have a bit of trouble making sense of the words used by Shakespeare. I can't just skim as I do with a lot of things. The English of his time was basically a different language, but as a well-read, college-educated English speaker, it embarrassed me a bit that I struggle so much with his writing.

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Interesting Supplementary Reading

After last week's complaints about the quality of secondary articles, I'm happy to say that I found the secondary sources for this week's lesson to be both enjoyable and useful. In particular, I enjoyed reading about Aristotle's conceptualization of tragedy in an article by Dr. Barbara F. McManus of The College of New Rochelle. To Aristotle, dramatic tragedy is defined and governed by a set of rules, including a specific structure and tone. Character is to be secondary to the events of the play, and a character is to derive motivation from what is going on around him or her.

Hamlet seems to fulfill every aspect of this structure, from a plot that is driven by cause and effect actions and a hero of good and noble standing whose fortunes are demonstrably worse at the beginning of the play than at the end. It is a dramatic tragedy that ends in one of the most dramatically tragic possible scenarios - a literal pile of bodies, dead because of machinations put into motion by suspicion and wrath that grew as the play progressed. In ways, it's a family drama that calls to mind reality TV or daytime talk shows - can you imagine an episode of Jerry Springer titled 'Help! My Uncle Killed my Father and Married my Mother, and I'm Obsessed With Revenge!'? Maybe not quite. But almost.

Timeless Hamlet

Another aspect of Dr. McManus' article that resonated with me is the timelessness of drama. If you remember, I watched an adaptation of ''Hamlet'' for an assignment during Week 1 of the course. This adaptation, produced in 2000 and starring 90's movie darlings Ethan Hawke as Hamlet and Julia Stiles as Ophelia, was set in then-present day. It looked a bit dated to my 2012-acclimated eyes, but for the time, it was very hip, very of the moment. Hamlet's knit beanie and yellow-tinted sunglasses were, I guess, pretty cool back then. Overall, the film makes Hamlet seem kind of like a whiny proto-hipster. He's so rich, so artsy and so brooding.

But really, this is the impression Hamlet gives in the play. Granted, he hasn't had an easy time of it. His dad is murdered, his mom takes up with his sketchy uncle, who's now the king, and he kind of accidentally kills his sorta-girlfriend Ophelia's dad, all while brooding so hard that he literally makes Ophelia kill herself. Though few of us can relate to the specific pain felt in the wake of a parent's murder, Hamlet's agony and uncertainty is actually a fairly universal experience. Who among us hasn't wondered whether it's better 'to be, or not to be'? The recent adaptation of this film just goes to show how easy it is to fit Shakespeare's work into a more modern world.

Read last week's diary entry to get up to speed on Sarah's progress so far!

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