About biancah80

Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning at a public high school on Sydney's Northern Beaches. Happily married & mum of 2 boys. My blog: www.biancahewes.wordpress.com

Titus Andronicus – a tragedy, a farce, or a B grade slasher?

**Trigger warning** This review includes references to sexual assault and violence

I’ve never heard anyone speak about Titus Andronicus as a play they love. Maybe because I don’t know the play, I’ve just never paid attention when people talk about it, so coming to this play I had no preconceptions other than the title sounds fancy (Roman name?) and that it was an early play of Shakespeare’s, meaning I would likely be able to see him working through his apprenticeship as a playwright. Well, let’s just say I now have preconceptions! Wow! It’s a bit of a crazy work which took me on a complete rollercoaster and left me literally gasping out loud. Let’s get into it!

The play opens with a bunch of confusing named characters (how very Shakespeare) and a narrative context completely unfamiliar too me – what I gathered from the opening scene was that Titus is a hero, he has a lot of sons (I think 25 – 21 of whom have died in battle for Rome), there are two sons battling over who becomes emperor, and the enemy is a group of people called the Goths (cool name, yes, I don’t know anything about history – just letting myself be taught by a guy who’s been dead for 400 years). By the end of scene i, I honestly didn’t know which character I was meant to like – presumably Titus because he is the titular character, but he is far too arrogant to be likeable, so I decide maybe it was Tamora, Queen of the Goths and Titus’ hostage? Her (unsuccessful) pleading to save her eldest son, Alarbus, (who Titus orders to be killed and dismembered as a sacrifice to his own sons who died in battle – thankfully this murder happens off-stage, but the description is horrible) made me pity her, and she seemed really human. Well, I was wrong, OK? It becomes a pretty typical stylistic device of Shakespeare’s to intentionally disrupt his audience’s allegiance to characters. That’s the beauty of drama – there is often no single narrative perspective, so we see many sides to a story.

So Tamora turns out to be a bit of a snake, just like Saturninus (the brother who becomes emperor). You can see how Tamora fits into what will become a bit of a trope character for Shakespeare – the plotting, vengeful, ambitious, feisty woman – reminding me of Margaret from the Henry/Richard plays. Saturnius initially declares he will marry Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, but then his brother, Bassiamus (another great name) snatches her away (literally) because he loves her. Two of Titus’ sons support this, but Titus is outraged (Lavinia being his property and all) and kills one of his sons. Not even accidentally, full on intentionally and goes after another. Geez. Saturnius doesn’t care because he really wants Tamora anyway, and so the two couples get married. But, don’t get excited, this is no comedy so it doesn’t end with love and happiness. This (I think) is a tragedy so we are going to get blood, blood, blood. Shakespeare quickly introduces another important character, Aaron ‘the Moor’. I was intrigued to see how Shakespeare uses Aaron’s race as a point of characterisation (or not) because the only other play I know with ‘a Moor’ is Othello and as we all know, Othello cops some pretty nasty racism but (despite obvious flaws) he’s shown to be human and his death is really sad – we feel sorry for his downfall. Aaron is different. He’s more of an Iago than an Othello. He is definitely the villain; a mastermind. Aaron, we find out, is Tamora’s lover. What I love about reading these plays in chronological order is how it helps you see Shakespeare building up to his greatest characters – Iago is definitely the craftiness, cunning and cruelty of Aaron and the wit, intelligence and charisma of Richard. I also like watching Shakespeare test out his use of language – in this play he includes quite a bit of Latin. I can’t decide if it’s because the play is set in Rome back in the day, or if it’s because he wants to impress the ‘university wits’ and prove himself as capable as them. Maybe both.

Well, all I can say is that the next bit of action is the stuff of full-on slasher horror – I gasped and covered my eyes, for real. So Tamora has two sons and they have decided that they both love Titus’ daughter Lavinia. Aaron solves their quarrel by helping them plot to murder Lavinia’s husband, Bassianus, and rape Lavinia. Yeah, fucked up, right? So surely Shakespeare is setting us up to feel moral outrage and then show us that something so horrifying couldn’t come to fruition, right? Well, no. He’s following the classical tradition of Greek tragedy – this thing is going to be brutal and all on stage too. The horror-show takes place out in the wilderness whilst everyone is on a hunting trip and we discover that Tamora is in on the plot. Yuck. I don’t want to describe the scene, feel free to go to the source yourself and read it, but let’s just say that Shakespeare holds nothing back, and I can’t even imagine how they would have staged this back in the day. I have been to the Pop-Up Globe to see Macbeth and ended up covered in blood, so I’m guessing this too would have been a messy affair for the audience. The murder of Bassianus was a shock for me and reminded me of the killings in the Henry plays as both of the sons stab him – a duel murder. Then the sons are encouraged by their mother, Tamora, to take Lavinia off and rape her – despite Lavinia’s pleadings to be killed like her husband instead. They do as they are told, with Demetrius uttering a horrific line: ‘First thrash the corn, then after burn the straw’. I mean, Shakespeare? Why? Yuck. You’d think that was enough, right? Well, that is just the start. Next we see Aaron trick two of Titus’ sons into falling down the hole where Bassianus’ body has been thrown. The stagecraft of Maritius in the bottom (presumably down the trapdoor?) and his brother above trying to pull him out would have been impressive and enjoyable for the audience – especially when the second brother falls in head first. The description of Bassianus’s dead body is pretty gross too.

So, I had hoped that the villain brothers would just do their awful work offstage and that would be the end of it, but since Shakespeare had grown up reading the Greek tragedies, he couldn’t leave it there. Bringing the destroyed Lavinia back on stage to stand in her pain and anguish (having had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out) is, I suppose, Shakespeare’s equivalent of Oedipus with the jelly of his eyes tumbling down his cheeks. Vomit. The fact that Shakespeare brings Lavinia on stage whilst her uncle, Marcus, describes what she looks like just adds to the horror. I was so conflicted by this scene, I wanted Lavinia to die because how could she live like that but also why should she die? I don’t know, it’s so hard to read this scene in 2021, and I’m guessing it probably has been a hard one since it was first written and performed. All I know is that I didn’t like it, not one bit.

Following this the play gets more and more complicated and bloody. We have Titus being tricked by Aaron to cut off one of his own hands (trying to save his two sons) only to be sent his severed hand and the severed heads of his sons in a box. Yuck. One scene I did enjoy is the fly killing scene at the dinner table. I don’t know why, maybe just the absurdity of it? It really is a brilliant piece of absurdist farce.

[MARCUS strikes the dish with a knife]
What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?

Marcus Andronicus. At that that I have kill’d, my lord; a fly.

Titus Andronicus. Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart;
Mine eyes are cloy’d with view of tyranny:
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone:
I see thou art not for my company.

Marcus Andronicus. Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly.

Tamora gives birth offstage to a son, but a nurse comes on stage with the infant and reveals to Aaron and Tamora’s sons that the baby is black – clearly Aaron’s baby. This isn’t good for Tamora or Aaron – presumably the emperor will be pissed. Aaron plots to take the baby to a Goth family and then suddenly kills the nurse who brought the news – this made me gasp! Fully unexpected stabby stab. As one of Titus’ sons (Lucius) heads to the Goths himself to secure them as allies against Rome, we find Tamora and her sons plotting to take advantage of (what everyone thinks is) an increaingly insane Titus (the fly thing was the first hint he was becoming unhinged). There’s more than a little bit of Lear hiding in Titus. Tamora tries to trick him into believing she is the spirit of Revenge and her sons are Murder and Rape. This is a bit of clever stagecraft and wordplay from Shakespeare – I really liked the sort of horrific farcical nature of this scene. Initially Shakespeare has us too believing Titus has lost his mind, but then he reveals in a little aside (a bit like what we later come to associate with Shakespeare’s heroes and villains, chatting to themselves or the audience) that he knows it is Tamora. He asks to keep her sons whilst Revenge goes off to collect Tamora for dinner (lol) and somehow hatches the grizzly plan to have the sons killed, ground down into powder, and cooked into a pastie which he will then feed their mother. Fully disgusting, surely it won’t come to fruition? The set-up for the audience is glorious and you can just imagine how delighted the original audience would have been to watch and see if the plot comes good.

In a scene that is just beyond disturbing (seriously though, this comes from Shakespeare? The guy who Bloom said invented ‘the human’? Man… this is as inhuman as it gets.) Titus has Lavinia hold a bowl between her stumps to catch the blood gushing from the two men who raped and mutilated her as Titus kills them. I guess my problem is that I see characters as human beings, which probably wasn’t necessarily how Shakespeare’s audience saw them at this early stage of his writing career – they were more like symbols like you’d see in a morality or miracle play. I read this play and just feel awful for Lavinia. So next up is the famous dinner scene (never was famous for me as I hadn’t heard of it at all, but I’m guessing it’s pretty famous, how could it not be?) where Titus dresses as a cook and serves up a pie made from Tamora’s sons. Just before we get that beyond horrifying gratification of Tamora eating her sons (even gross to type out), we are shocked – absolutely shocked, more gasping and eye-covering from me – when Titus stabs and kills Lavinia at the table. Why does he do it? Because looking on her brings him shame. Yep. Messed up. So then he tells Tamora that she ate her sons in the pie before he kills her too, Saturninus then kills Titus and Lucius kills Saturninus. Marcus declares Lucius the new emperor and Aaron (who has been caught by Lucius in an earlier scene) is brought onstage with Lucius ordering him to be buried up to his chest and left to die from starvation. Aaron speaks and reveals himself to be pure evil – the only thing in life he laments is if he ever did a good deed. This is not a human villain like Richard III or even Iago (who has some justification for his evil plots but remains silent at the end) – you can see how much Shakespeare grows by reading Aaron here as being rather a symbolic or stock character more than human. And that’s the thing I take away from the play – that Shakespeare is testing out his skills with character, plot and language. It would have been a riotous play to watch live, and I suppose it still is – not sure I could handle it unless the director really played up the B grade horror elements.

Richard III – a tragic history with a very human ‘villain’

At my previous school, I taught Richard III as part of a comparative study with Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard. I was in the privileged position to select any texts I wanted to teach, and because I wanted to teach Orwell’s essays, it left me with Richard III as my Shakespeare option. Luckily for me, and my students, I loved it. Reading the play again over the last two weeks (I’ve been slack with my reading because the latest COVID outbreak in Sydney has distracted me), I feel like I was reading it for the first time. Why? Because of my reading of the Henry VI trilogy prior, and getting to see Richard in his earlier days and in a broader context. Given that Richard III is so well-known, I’m not going to bother with a plot overview like I did for the previous three plays. What I’m most interested in is how, dramatically, this play is quite a departure or evolution (dare I say improvement?) on Shakespeare’s early histories.

The Henry plays are surprising for how swiftly the plot moves and for how many characters traipse across the page/stage. The compression of time is so great that it feels like the action takes place over a very short period of time – maybe a few weeks – even though it is actually many years. Richard III, similarly feels swift (dramas like this documenting the rise and fall of a king have to compress time necessarily) but it also feels slow. Finally, Shakespeare is allowing himself time to unravel the private life (the interior mind I suppose the fancy thinkers would call it) of a character, and this, to me, is what makes this play so different. In the Henry plays I was impressed by the way Shakespeare juggled the different characters, showing sides both lamentable and likeable and thus making them inch their way towards being human (I actually thought of all the characters, Henry himself felt the most fully developed – having flaws, vulnerabilities, doubts, and being quite honest and authentic) and this was a sensible approach because almost all contributed to the life of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare’s monarch. But Richard is something else entirely. He opens the play talking directly to us, showing us his frustrations, anxieties, vulnerabilities, and his (immoral) desires. We know of what he has done leading up to this moment (his involvement in the death of young Prince Edward, and the killing of Henry VI) but our feelings about these deeds, before this play begins aren’t as negative as they will become. After all, he was working in the service of his king – his brother Edward who was considered more legitimate than Henry. What Shakespeare does, is he makes us question the morality of these actions (even if, as a servant of the king, they could be dismissed as reasonable?) and he shifts us towards a different view of how to determine right and wrong. I don’t argue this is a central theme of the play, rather I think the intrigue comes from how we are taken along with Richard, as his confidants, something not attempted in his earlier plays. For us, Richard isn’t a historical figure rushing from one fight to the next, avenging a king, he is a human being inviting us into his private thoughts, luring us to witness the way in which he quite ingeniously climbs his way to the crown.

Personally, I find the first half of the play the most compelling. Richard’s famous opening monologue is one of my favourite pieces from Shakespeare, as too is the incredible dialogue between Richard and Anne. It’s not just the quick dialogue between them – which at times is so formal and then so natural – but the stagecraft, with the body of Henry VI on stage bleeding from his wounds as Anne falls for Richard’s wooing. It’s so great, Shakespeare must have been super stoked with himself after writing that scene. Oh, and then Margaret! Honestly, having read the previous plays and knowing her story just makes her entrance and cursing so much more powerful. The conflicting feelings towards her are so well developed – it’s like Shakespeare is delighting in playing with us. How can we like her after what she did to Rutland and York? We can’t. Yet how can we not be moved by her incisive intellect as she describes and dooms everyone on stage? We must be. I love, love, love the scene with Richard and his mother. It’s soooo sad! Richard’s hurt is so evident, and his bewilderment at his own mother’s hatred and scorn clearly comes through. And yet you can’t feel anything but sympathy for her, given all she has lost to the English crown. Gosh, Shakespeare is good!

I do, however, find that some of the scenes are too stylised at times, lacking that authenticity and flow, that naturalism (is that the right word??) of Shakespeare’s later plays. This is evident in his scenes with the weeping women and children – all that formal, repetition and structured verse. Like, on stage it could look great, but it doesn’t work for me in terms of evoking an emotional response. The same can be said for the staging before Bosworth. Like, I get it – the setting up of the tents and the current vs future king being visited by the ghosts of those the former has killed, in terms of stagecraft it’s very cool, but I just feel that it slows the action too much. The first half is just so intense, the language moves so quickly, Richard’s wit dominates, he is an enormous figure right up until he becomes king, and then he just shrivels. We lose him after that, and everything becomes structured, formal, dry. Perhaps it was intentional, but I feel like if you compare it to a tragedy like Macbeth, where the energy and authenticity is sustained right until the end, I think it’s weaker for the diminishing of Richard. We don’t really get any real direct engagement with Richard after he is king – we miss out on a genuinely reflective soliloquy like we get from Macbeth after the death of Lady Macbeth. All we have is a little bit of anxiety and paranoia, a touch of self-pity after his nightmare, and a brief rush of confidence and self-awareness on the battlefield before he is killed. Also, I don’t like Richmond. He is boring and that’s all I have to say about him.

Richard III is easily one of my favourite plays, and it’s almost entirely because of the charismatic titular character. From Richard comes all of the other characters we come to know and love – hiding in his words we have hints of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. I think the representation of women in this play also makes my review of it so positive – those women are badass! So far, having read the first four plays of my Collected Works, I think Shakespeare has done a great job representing women as fierce, intelligent, capable and really just as human as his men. So that’s my review of Richard III – it’s bloody awesome. My favourite quotes from the play are below.

Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it!
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence!

If ever he have wife, let her be made
More miserable by the death of him
Than I am made by my young lord and thee!

Dead Henry’s wounds
Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells;
Thy deeds inhuman and unnatural
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.

GLOUCESTER. Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it.
ANNE. Some dungeon.
GLOUCESTER. Your bed-chamber.

Speak it again, and even with the word
This hand, which for thy love did kill thy love,
Shall for thy love kill a far truer love;
To both their deaths shalt thou be accessary.

Because I cannot flatter and look fair,
Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive, and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.

I cannot tell; the world is grown so bad
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch.
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.

Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider
Whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?

I was born so high,
Our aery buildeth in the cedar’s top,
And dallies with the wind, and scorns the sun.

And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stol’n forth of holy writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

Princes have but their titles for their glories,
An outward honour for an inward toil;
And for unfelt imaginations
They often feel a world of restless cares,
So that between their tides and low name
There’s nothing differs but the outward fame.

O, do not slander him, for he is kind.

When clouds are seen, wise men put on
their cloaks;
When great leaves fall, then winter is at hand;
When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?
Untimely storms make men expect a dearth.

Thus, like the formal vice, Iniquity,
I moralize two meanings in one word.

Since you will buckle fortune on my back,
To bear her burden, whe’er I will or no,
I must have patience to endure the load;

O, would to God that the inclusive verge
Of golden metal that must round my brow
Were red-hot steel, to sear me to the brains!

But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?
Where be thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?
Who sues, and kneels, and says ‘God save the Queen’?
Where be the bending peers that flattered thee?
Where be the thronging troops that followed thee?

Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell.
A grievous burden was thy birth to me;
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy school-days frightful, desp’rate, wild, and furious;
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;
Thy age confirm’d, proud, subtle, sly, and bloody,
More mild, but yet more harmful-kind in hatred.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe.

Henry VI: Part III – The Rise of Richard

If you didn’t guess it, my title is a reference to Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker. On Monday night I watched Episode IV for (what I believe to be) the first time the whole way through. Last night I watched Episode V and I’m really enjoying them – very confident I’ve never watched that whole one either. I always thought that I had watched them, but I definitely did not know what was going to happen, indicating I might have just assumed I’d seen them for my whole life. I’ve watched all of the prequels and later sequels, which I very much enjoyed. That gets me to my title and the relationship between Shakespeare’s history plays and Star Wars (and the MCU). Basically what he’s doing, intentionally or not, with the first Henry trilogy is he’s beginning a franchise. No, seriously. Hear me out. He’s establishing all of these characters and relationships and expectations which he then goes on to elaborate on (exploit?) in later plays. I know I’m making this up, but I like to imagine that after he moves away from the histories, and starts writing and staging comedies, that the audience are like ‘we need more of that franchise, man’. That maybe there was a petition of some sort requesting that he write a play about Henry V or IV. What about Richard II? He needs to get a voice, after all he’s been mentioned a lot already, show us his backstory! We wonder how could the audiences deal with all of these characters, but yet we accept that contemporary audiences will deal with the intricacies of the Star Wars world or the MCU (and all its phases!). In the final instalment of the latest Star Wars trilogy, we saw the rise of a new Jedi – Rey Skywalker – and in the final instalment of the Henry VI trilogy, we see the rise of both King Edward and (more importantly) his brother Richard, Duke of Gloster.

So what did I think of this play? I actually found myself really captivated by the plot and read the entire play in one night. I stayed up way later than I normally do just so I could finish it. This surprised me because the first couple of plays were much harder going just in terms of working out who the characters were, what was happening and where the action was set. I suppose the ease of this play is a testament to the effectiveness of Shakespeare’s characterisation in the previous plays – he really built the main players up pretty slowly over the course of the plays, which I think I mentioned in my last post. For me the central characters of the plays are York, King Henry, Queen Margaret and Richard. Obviously Richard isn’t in the first play, but since I confused him with his dad back then, it feels to me like he’s been a constant presence in the whole narrative.

Richard has the final lines in Henry VI: Part II, foreshadowing to the audience his continued rise into the next part of the story. However, it is Warwick, a York ally, who opens Part III. I think this is a clever decision because Warwick’s role in the play is significant and he highlights the fickleness of loyalty in the context of a civil war – something Shakespeare depicts across the three plays as a feather stirred and redirected by the lightest of breath. It’s this key concern – really almost like a subtle mockery of loyalty as an impossible ideal – that I think would resonate with contemporary audiences. The concept is used like a tool for politicians and even corporations, but really what is it? Shakespeare’s characters demonstrate that it’s just a word to be used but when it comes down to it, what matters most is pride and power. Warwick is an excellent example of this.

There is a lot of quick dialogue in this play, and it’s easy to see Shakespeare testing out his skills with language. He builds tension between the two factions in the opening scene, with a heated exchange between York, Clifford, Henry and others. York demands that Henry yield the crown and (surprisingly, I thought) Henry does. He agrees to let York’s sons become heirs to the crown as long as Henry can rule peacefully until his death. Wishful thinking. Personally, I found the characterisation of Henry here to be clever – his capitulation is based on his comprehension of York’s stronger claim to the throne, which casts him in a pretty good light from the outset. Like he has the moral high ground, in a way, but so too does York because he has a legitimate claim – all this is essential given where this story goes… all the way to the legitimacy of Elizabeth I and thus Tudor line. He doesn’t want his audience to despise either of these two men, but he does have to show them to be enemies. Interesting.

Well Queen Margaret is super pissed that Henry capitulated, because it means their son (the Prince of Wales) has been disinherited. The Prince is also mad, but it’s really Margaret who grows with the intensity of her fury – she has this powerful speech about being abandoned and then storms off, promising to lead an army against York. I really enjoy the scenes with Margaret, even if I don’t particularly like her. The next thing we know, we’re on the battlefield and Margaret’s army (led by Clifford) is dominating. I found this scene and the following to be really intense. Basically Clifford encounters Rutland, the youngest son of York, and despite Rutland’s pleas for mercy, Clifford stabs him and then Margaret mops up his blood with her handkerchief. The next moment the two have captured York and begin to taunt him. It’s pretty horrible really, and remembering now reminds me of why I don’t like Margaret. They tell York about how they killed his young son and dipped the cloth in his blood, pushing it on York to wipe his tears, then finally they put a paper crown on York’s head. Well, if you want to read a heartbreaking speech, read the response of York to this cruelty (‘see, ruthless queen, a hapless father’s tears’). It reaffirms my comments above about Shakespeare’s generous characterisation of him. They end up stabbing him whilst he weeps for his dead son.

Upon hearing the news of their father’s death, Richard and Edward are devastated, but both quickly realise it means they are in line for the throne. Warwick joins them, and so does their other brother George (Duke of Clarence) and they all agree to avenge York. The battle goes their way – lots of description about how scary they are, fury driving their actions and all – and we see Henry being taken hostage (after a rambling, reflective, super emo walk alone on a battlefield, reminiscent of King Lear) and Margaret and the prince flee to France. Meanwhile, Edward has crowned himself king and all the common people seem to just accept this change of monarch pretty readily. Warwick heads to France to try and woo King Charles’ sister for Edward (and therefore create an alliance with France) but unbeknownst to him Edward sets his eyes on a beautiful widow, Elizabeth Grey (she is super sassy, I like her – some great dialogue with Edward establishes her as someone to watch, which we know is important given her role in establishing the Tudor line) and decides to marry her instead. Warwick learns this from a messenger in front of King Charles and it’s crazy how his hurt pride (but to be fair Edward was a massive dick) catalyses his about-face and he professes his loyalty to Margaret and Henry! Crazy! They all head back to England and seek to set Henry free and put him back on the throne. Does this happen? Why yes, of course it does! Who knows what the timeline is for this play, but it certainly is much longer than the couple of weeks it feels like pass – compressed time is a total head fuck!

Whilst Henry is being released from the Tower, Edward is escaping the Tower, and Clarence has decided to join up with Warwick and the Lancastrians (Henry’s team) – why? Because he didn’t agree with Edward’s choice of wife. Another battle erupts between the two factions and in the course of it Clarence jumps back to the York side… and Warwick is killed. And then, suddenly, so bloody suddenly, you have the main players meet on the field – Henry, Margaret, their son Prince Edward, King Edward, Richard and Clarence. The result was always going to be a bitter bloodbath and really sort of sad. Margaret has a genuinely stirring speech about the likelihood that their campaign is going to fail, with Shakespeare just building and building the extended metaphor of their campaign (and monarchy, I suppose) as a ship being buffeted by a tempest. It’s all to nothing though, because in the end her young son is killed in front of her – stabbed by Gloster, Edward and Clarence as revenge for the killing of Rutland and York. Margaret is hysterical, cursing the brothers, and asking to be killed herself. And then there is Henry. The final scene takes place in the Tower, alone with Gloster. Henry’s grief for his son and for his tragic life in general is beautifully captured in an analogy to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus: ‘I, Daedalus; my poor boy, Icarus/ Thy father, Minos, that denied our courses/The sun, that sear’d the wings of my sweet boy,/ Thy brother Edwards; and thyself the sea,/Whose envious gulf did swallow up his life.’ Urgh. It’s so sad but soon his lament turns to scorn directed at Gloster, manifesting in some memorable insults about his scoliosis (as a fellowscoliosis sufferer, I find them harsh but as a lover of language, I find them fascinating): ‘The owl shriek’d at thy birth,–an evil sign;
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time;
Dogs howl’d, and hideous tempest shook down trees;
The raven rook’d her on the chimney’s top,
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,
And, yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,
To wit, an indigested and deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.’ But, the insults are too much and Richard stabs Henry to death before he can finish. Before the scene ends, we get a full glimpse of the Richard III we know and love – a soliloquy about his loneliness and his determination to get the crown for himself. The play ends with an ascendent Henry allowing Margaret’s escape to France, and a declaration that from now on he will have ‘mirthful comic shows’ instead of war.

I loved this play. It’s got everything you could want – heaps of action, strong characters, pathos, tragedy, and a little hint of what is to come in the next instalment. Top job, Shakespeare!

Henry VI: Part II – the story just gets wilder!

I’m definitely getting into the rhythm of this play now. I can’t believe it has three parts – it’s pretty wild to think that an audience would roll up (on successive days or like over a period of months, years?) to see this history played out on stage. But then I think about my obsession with the MCU, and maybe it’s the same thing? Perhaps audiences had their favourite heroes of history – maybe they turned up rooting for York and the Plantagenets like I turned up rooting for Loki? (Parallel between those two entirely unintended but if you know Loki and Richard III, maybe you’ll find something in the comparison that you like.) At some point I will do some research and find out when and how these plays were staged but for now I’m just enjoying reading them like they are a series of novels – each ending on a cliffhanger, urging me to continue reading the next one.

So, what happens in this play? If you remember from my last post, the first play is about establishing the rising tension between two factions – the York/Plantagenet team, symbolised by the white rose, and the Suffolk/Pole/Lancastrian (I think?), symbolised by the red rose. Basically both have a claim to the throne, and Shakespeare characterises them both as ambitious. The last play ended with Suffolk successfully getting his love Margaret to marry the young King Henry (Suffolk is already married so he can’t have her for himself so of course he marries him to his mate, of course!), and the final scene of the play is his – patting himself on the back and predicting his rise. In the second play Shakespeare continues to focus on this idea of conflict between nobleman which stems from their individual ambitions or claims to the throne. Poor King Henry – he’s so young, believes his new wife loves only him, and doesn’t have very much experience as a ruler because he’s been under the protection of the Duke of Gloster, the Lord Protector, since he was nine months old. One thing I enjoy about this three-part story is the way in which Shakespeare slowly builds his characters. Admittedly it can be a bit frustrating with so many different characters – this play again has heaps of new ones and also jumps through time in a crazy way, making it a bit tricky to keep up with sometimes. In fact, I’ll probably stuff up the chronology of what happens in the play as I try to summarise the plot in my next paragraph. Wish me luck!

The play opens with (aside: this writer isn’t sure, so she goes to flick back through the fake gold-edged Complete Works) the crowning of Margaret as Queen. Suffolk gets the opening lines, like he gets the closing lines of the previous play, foreshadowing that a big part of the narrative arc will be his rise and fall (spoiler). The Cardinal (now named Beaumont, previously Winchester when he was a bishop) is very pleased with himself because he is in Suffolk’s pocket but York is pissed off because Suffolk, in organising for Margaret to marry Henry, has given away two big chunks of land in France. York had been instrumental in securing that land for England, so of course he’s not happy. Duke of Gloster is happy because Henry is happy, but his beef with Beaumont continues because the latter wants more control over Henry and sees Gloster as being in the way. Big Henry IV vibes here but I do like the introduction of the religious element as it reminds me of Wolf Hall and the attitudes towards cardinals, bishops and the political power they wield. Interesting. Anyway, next thing we know we are at home with the Glosters and it turns out that Beaumont is sort of right, Gloster does have a claim to the throne but he’s not really interested in acting on it because he is loyal to the king. His wife, Duchess of Gloster, on the other hand, is far less loyal. She smacks of an early Lady Macbeth character and this becomes more apparent later as she dabbles in some witchcraft – raising spirits and seeking prophecies – which again just brings up Shakespeare’s ongoing connection between powerful women and witchcraft (remember Joan of Arc in the first play?). Gloster shuts down his wife and tells her to forget her ambitions, what will be will be, not before a scene very reminiscent of Macbeth where she belittles him and talks about his dreams.

It turns out that there is a lot of sneaky talk going on back at court as well. Suffolk and Beaumont have a discussion with Margaret about the threat that York and his buddies pose to the crown, and also tells Margaret about Duchess of Gloster’s ambitions. This gets Margaret going cos she doesn’t like the Duchess because she dresses better than her and treats her like a child – there is a funny scene where Margaret hits the Duchess with her fan! Meanwhile York and his mates are discussing his claim to the throne – York has this huge speech where he basically just outlines the family tree and the history of his family, justifying his claim to the throne – he is the descendent of the third son of old King Edward (I think that’s his name, too lazy to check but it’s an old king who was blessed/cursed with heaps of sons) whereas the current king descends from the fourth son. Ah, primogeniture, so bloody confusing and weird. York’s speech is hilarious, because it’s like Shakespeare has gone ‘I need this history in here, let’s just get him to blab it out like a school boy’. I actually was convinced though and by the end felt like York was right in his claim. So York starts planning a way to get Suffolk’s ambition seen by Henry, and in doing so hopes to bring down the cardinal with him. Luckily for York, Suffolk and Beaumont decide to have Gloster murdered, giving him an opportunity to scream treason and get them both executed. The murder of Gloster reminds me of the murder of Buckingham (I think?) in Richard III when he gets drowned in a barrel of wine and one of the murderers starts getting all guilty about it. Shakespeare always does interesting things with murderers, they are either money-oriented with zero guilt, or they are guilt-addled and hesitant (like Hamlet?). There is an excellent moment where York’s buddy reveals the dead Gloster in his bed (fun staging I imagine) and then goes on to describe in great detail what his face looks like in death to prove that he has indeed been murdered – a bit of Elizabethan sleuthing!

Within a scene of Gloster’s death we have the decision for Suffolk to be killed which distresses Queen Margaret, proving her loyalty to him over the king (and yet the king keeps her as queen) and the cardinal dies presumably by poison. The death of the cardinal is fascinating – basically it is represented as though he was a man of great sin who died afraid of meeting his God. Surely a comment on the corruption within the church at the time. Pretty brave. Sometime after this we find Suffolk on a boat on the way to France – I was confused by why he was on a boat to be killed. Anyway, he tries to argue for his life but the captain and the executioner are disinterested, and it’s obvious their actions are based on class resentment and they take great joy in their wielding power over him at the end of his life. He gets his head lopped off, and then a pardoned gentleman takes it back to Queen Margaret who carries it around with her – so messed up!

Phew! You’d think I’d be almost finished but I’m not – so much for a quick synopsis in one paragraph. After all of this backstabbing and treason and death, we have a civilian-led uprising! We are introduced to a guy named Jack Cade who imagines himself as a descendent of Mortimer – telling the tale that he was a twin who was taken at birth and raised by a lower class woman. Anyway, he and his mate Dick are pretty funny. We see them moving through different locations in England, winning battles and making fun of people who can read and speak Latin. There is a great bit of dialogue where Cade is cranky at a nobleman for introducing printers and setting up a paper mill – Cade hates books and education (see funny quote at the end). He takes a swipe at universities too, which gave me a giggle because later the university-educated playwrights would give Shakespeare a hard time because of his lack of education. So what happens to Cade? Well he and his huge band of rebels make it to London in an attempt to get the king and claim the crown. Unfortunately they meet their match in a guy called Old Clifford. Clifford convinces the rebels that they should be loyal to the king and that if they leave off fighting they will be forgiven. Cade runs back to Kent where he hides out in the forest for five days until, starving, he climbs into the yard of a very strange guy called Iden. The two have some banter before they fight, with Iden killing Cade and declaring to cut off his head and take it to the king (who promised 1000 marks or crowns or gold bits, whatever, for Cade’s head).

Meanwhile, York has been in Ireland fighting for England to quell an uprising. When he comes back to England he brings with him his soldiers and threatens to bring his power against the crown unless Somerset (an ally of Suffolk) is put in the Tower. Henry agrees to this and York is happy but then he sees Somerset is still at large (Margaret tries to hide him) and this causes York to let loose his true feelings. He details his own claim to the throne and requests Henry to hand over the crown – everyone is dumbstruck. York calls in his supporters, including his sons Edward and Richard. Now, finally, I think that THIS Richard is actually King Richard III, not the York in these plays. Why do I think this? Well because of the insult Clifford uses against him, calling him a ‘foul indigested lump as crooked in thy manners as thy shape’. Sounds like our Richard III, right? Anyway, this erupts into another battle with York and his crew fighting Clifford and his son. York kills Old Clifford and young Clifford is sad and angry, vowing revenge. The king and queen realise this isn’t going to end well for them so they run away to London. The play ends with a valiant and determined York, ready to march to London and claim his crown. It’s very reminiscent of the cliffhanger ending of the first play, but now it’s York on the ascent, not Suffolk.

I was joking with my son that reading/watching these plays is like watching the MCU films (particularly the last few in phase 3) where you really need to know the relationships between the characters to understand the narrative. There is definitely a thesis in the parallels between Shakespeare’s history plays and the MCU, I reckon! I’m really looking forward to the finale of the Henry VI trilogy – given that I don’t know the history myself, I’m keen to see who wins in the end and who comes to a dramatic and swift end.

Favourite quotes from this play:

‘Pride went before, ambition follows him…
Oft have I seen the haughty cardinal,
More like a soldier than a man o’ the church,
As stout and proud as he were lord of all’

‘Put forth thy hand; reach at the glorious gold./What, is ’t too short? I’ll lengthen it with mine’

‘Could I come near thy beauty with my hands/I’d set the Ten Commandments in they face!’

‘ and Gloster’s show
Beguiles him as the mournful crocodile
With sorrow snares relenting passengers,
Or as the snake roll’d in a flowering bank,
With shining checker’d slough, doth sting a child
That for the beauty thinks it excellent.’

‘It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.’

‘Was ever feather blown to and fro as this multitude?’

Henry VI: Part I – a reader’s review

If I didn’t know this was a Shakespeare play, I would think it was a teenager’s attempt to write like Shakespeare. I found it pretty surprising how sort of not great this play is. Have you read it? I’m going to assume that most people reading my blog (and that’s about 80 or so people – I’ve been looking at the stats over the last couple of days) haven’t read Henry VI: Part I. According to the version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that I am reading, this is Shakespeare’s earliest play. Knowing this probably has coloured my reading of it, but I’ll pretend it hasn’t and that I’m just an excellent judge of quality drama. (Spoiler alert: I’m not.)

The narrative of the play goes a little like this: King Henry V has died, he leaves behind a young son who is being ‘protected’ by his uncle, Duke of Gloster. Gloster is fighting with Bishop Winchester (which incidentally reminds me a lot of the niggling between Cromwell and Gardiner in Wolf Hall) because both of them want to have control of the new king. Winchester seems like the dodgy one though, and it feels like this conflict will be part of the next play too. England is at war with France – the English troops are in France still, I suppose they’ve been there since Henry V took them there? Not sure. Basically Shakespeare represents King Charles of France as a bit of an idiot and quite weak. The play jumps between battlefield action in France and the court of England in the early scenes, so it’s a bit confusing. I’ve become so accustomed to Shakespeare being this master of time and place that reading a play of his that jumps all over the shop like a primary school narrative is quite amusing.

In France we are introduced to Joan of Arc, which is super cool. She’s absolutely characterised as a witch, which again is amusing. Shakespeare does represent her as super feisty and brave though – she isn’t interested in taking shit from Charles (even though at some point they do seem to get rather intimate and he asks her to be his queen??) and she goes into physical combat with all the confidence you would expect or Joan of Arc. It just sucks that ultimately she is reduced to a sorceress of some form, talking to spirits and such. Anyway, before that happens we see some very quick battles between the English and French armies – how that would even be staged back in Shakespeare’s time I have no clue – with them alternating in success.

Back in England (I think) we are introduced to Richard Plantagenet and Duke of Suffolk. They are not friends but to be honest I couldn’t work out why not – some ancient grudge I suppose – and basically they decide to show their factions by plucking a white rose (York) or red rose (Suffolk) from a bush. It is very cool that Shakespeare includes this scene in his play, and I’m sure it would have been a popular one back in the day. We learn that Richard has had his title of Duke of York taken from him because his father was a traitor against Henry V (something to do with Mortimer – oh, that’s right, Mortimer is in prison and Richard visits him, gets an apology from Mortimer who then dies). In the quickest scene you’ve ever read, Richard appeals to young Henry VI and gets reinstated as Duke of York. We then head back to France where the hero of the battles, a guy called Lord Talbot, meets Joan of Arc and they bang on about who is the most courageous. Then there is a lot of choppy short scenes, alternating between the French with Joan and Charles, and the English with Talbot and some other Lords whose names don’t seem that important. Basically what happens that does matter is that Talbot is caught in the field in a massive battle when his young son arrives, and then they do this really long bizarre rhyming dialogue about bravery – just weird because Shakespeare’s verse rarely rhymes and this scene just rhymes in couplets the whole time. It’s actually super off putting, and undermines the supposed heroism of these two men. Anyway, they need extra supplies and they’re meant to come from either York or Suffolk but both of them stuff up, each trying to make the other look bad, but what happens is Talbot and his son are killed and as Talbot dies he blames both Dukes. I think that moment must be important later but in this play it all just seems so bitsy and lacking cohesion.

Somehow York ends up confronting Joan of Arc, capturing her and essentially condemning her to burn – not before she gets to curse him though. Again, I don’t know this history well so I can’t comment on how accurate it might be. If York is the future Richard III as I first thought, this is a really interesting pairing! I sort of don’t want to Google it though because getting the history from Shakespeare like this makes me feel like a real Elizabethan, haha. Whilst York is battling Joan, Suffolk has got his eyes on a French woman, Margaret, who is supposedly the daughter of the King of Jerusalem (I know right? What?!) but Suffolk is already married so he decides to match her up with King Henry VI. Never mind the fact that a scene or two earlier Henry had agreed to marry someone else! The play ends with France conceding defeat as part of a peace treaty demanded by Henry, and then Henry agreeing to marry Margaret based on Suffolk’s description of her. The last line belongs to Suffolk who claims he’s going to have Margaret for himself as well as controlling Henry and the crown. It all sounds very familiar for someone who has just finished reading the Wolf Hall trilogy!

As a whole, the play was super easy to read and there were a few nice lines in there but mostly it was a lot of ‘telling’ which is unlike the Shakespeare plays I’m familiar with. There isn’t much in the way of imagery or conceptual depth, it really is just like an action film with heaps of characters and jumping from scene to scene. It didn’t take long to read and wasn’t hard to understand. Oh, I almost forgot to say that Sir John Fastolfe is a character in this play and I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be Sir John Falstaff who latter becomes one of Shakespeare’s greatest inventions. Fastolfe is a cowardly knight who abandons his post and men to save himself. He ends up having his knighthood stripped off him by Henry VI. Same guy as our old mate Falstaff? I reckon it is but a quick Wikipedia entry skim read doesn’t help with an answer.

I’ll try to pick a favourite line from each of the plays I read and review. For Henry VI: Part I, it’s this line: ‘O, were mine eyeballs into bullets turn’d,/That I, in rage, might shoot them at your faces!’

Reading Shakespeare for pleasure…

What is this reading for pleasure thing I am referring to? Sorry, dear teacher reader, but this year I am in a non-school based teaching role and you know what that means?! It means no marking! It means no working on the weekends or after work. It means… reading for pleasure without any guilt! I’m not writing this post to rub in the fact that I have time (glorious, luxurious, precious, not taking it for granted, time) to read for pleasure, I’m writing it as a reminder and a record for myself that I HAVE TIME TO READ FOR PLEASURE!! I’m not going to waste this absolute privilege – I’m going to do what I did as a child, pre-teen and pregnant-with-my-first-child adult: I’m going to read everything I can.

So far this year that has included reading my first Murakami book ever (now that I know what magical realism is, thanks HSC marking, I figured I should read some) – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Super weird but cool. I’ve also read an entire textbook (Teaching Language in Context) on writing – from cover to cover. Yes, it’s related to work but I also read it in my free time because I loved it. Recently (as in over the last four weeks) I read the Wolf Hall trilogy which is brilliant but I’m sure everyone knows that already. Prior to these reads, I’d been busily using my spare time to finish writing my latest book (it’s called On Teaching – content matches the title, surprisingly) and binge watching all the TV series people reference on social media – Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office, Parks & Rec, and New Girl. Yes, I’ve managed to watch four entire television series in the first half of the year. Insanity.

Anyway, now that I’ve moved on from my book writing and my Netflix binging, I’m going to hunker down and focus on reading. There are so many ‘classics’ that I’ve not read; mostly the books I’ve read (adult fiction books, I mean) are those which have been set for the HSC – either because I have taught the book or I’ve had to write about it for my HSC Excel study guides. I’m really keen to be able to tick more books off when I read those lists of Top 100 literary texts of all time. Anyway, that brings me to the title of this post – reading Shakespeare for pleasure! I’ve decided to start my reading with the big gun, Shakespeare. Last year my beautiful mentees gifted me a copy of Shakespeare’s collected works (see photo below) and I’ve decided to read it from cover to cover! The only Shakespeare I have read is, again, the plays and sonnets that I have had to teach or write about. I’ve never sat down and read Shakespeare for pleasure in the way you sit down to read a novel. Why? I’m not sure. I no longer find the language difficult, after having taught his plays for so many years, so I suppose it’s just not feeling like I had the time. Having just finished the Wolf Hall trilogy, I feel like staying in that era and that mode – not to mention the fact that last year I read a fantastic biography on Shakespeare (Genius by Jonathan Bate) and one on John Donne (by John Stubbs) which just made me super enjoy reading about that time in England.

I started reading it yesterday, and am loving it. I thought I might just document my reading here on my blog. Why? I don’t know but I think mostly it’s because I miss writing – plus I miss talking about literature which I guess is what I did on a daily basis for 16 years up until this year. The Complete Works opens with letters from Heminge and Condell – the guys who put together the First Folio (1623) – to their benefactors and to the reader of the folio. It’s just sweet to think these were real live human beings who knew and loved the real live William Shakespeare. Then there are a couple of obituaries to Shakespeare – again, just sweet and humanising the man who wrote these remarkable plays and poems. Then there is Ben Jonson’s poem ‘To the memory of my beloved, the author, Master William Shakespeare and what he hath left us’ which is just, urgh, it actually is heart-wrenching! I cried as a read it, and look, it’s probably a lot to do with me having just finished Wolf Hall and being pretty tender – I just imagine Jonson so clearly as a real man thanks to Mantel’s incredible portrayal of life in this time (well, 100 years earlier but whatever, same place and stuff). I must admit that I’d never read Jonson’s poem about Shakespeare on his death and it was cool to see those two famous phrases ‘soul of the age’ and ‘He was not of an age, but for all time’ in context. Actually, the former quote is even better in full (which I don’t think many people know): Soul of the age, The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage, My Shakespeare, rise!

The Complete Works is set out in chronological order, so the first play I’m reading is Henry VI, Part 1. It’s funny, because I usually teach Henry IV: Part 1 to year 12, and this play opens with the death of Henry V, who I know as Hal, obviously, and the characters refer to him as this brave, fighter king. There are references to my beloved Falstaff being a coward and hated – clearly he has abandoned his post again and it’s led to some sort of defeat in France. There is also Richard III popping up but in the early guise of Richard Plantagenet – he just gets given back his title of Duke of York, and we get the scene where the War of the Roses begins – they literally pluck the roses in the garden and use them to show their sides! Cool! I used to teach Richard III, so this is so interesting! Oh course, I don’t know the timeline or the family tree well enough to say these are the same characters but I think they are, I’ll find out soon. Finally, I was absolutely surprised but delighted to discover that Joan of Arc is in this play! For real! Shakespeare’s first play has Joan of Arc as a character?! And she’s a badass too! Incredible.

So, that’s where I am at so far. I think I’ll keep writing about my reading of Shakespeare for pleasure. Hope I don’t bore you!

No purpose, probably not even an audience – so why bother writing?

It’s almost half a year since my last blog post. It wasn’t intentional that I left my blog silent, it just sort of happened. In the first few weeks of my new job, I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to write about what I was doing. It took me a little while to muster the courage to ask my boss if it was OK. I think he was amused by my question – perhaps asking something like that makes me unusual. Luckily writing is allowed! But then I started working hard on finishing up writing my latest book (it’s called On Teaching and right this minute the manuscript is being reviewed, scary!) and I found that with it as an outlet for my writing demon, I didn’t need this space. Well, evidently I’m back now that my book is (almost) to bed.

In my last post, I lamented my decision to leave my youngest son to fend for himself at my school. I was worried about how he would cope without Mum there each day, but he has done remarkably well. I couldn’t be more proud of him. Some days he comes home so full of news and things to talk about that I can’t shut him up for almost an hour straight. When he mentions some teachers, I don’t know their names and it’s very weird knowing that these new faces and personalities exist in my school and yet we are strangers to each other. The first half of term I felt adrift and uncemented to my new role and colleagues. When I dropped Balin to school, it felt weird driving off, like something was pulling me inside. I was sad that my colleagues weren’t contacting me every day telling me they missed me or that the students missed me. They never told me the school or faculty was falling apart without me. In fact, I barely heard from my school at all… proving the point that schools march on without you, as much as you think they can’t or won’t. They do.

I’ve found a new rhythm this term, especially with Balin. I drop him to school each morning, and apart from sometimes catching the eye of a student who remembers or knows me (but to year 7 and other new students I am no one), I no longer feel that invisible pull into the school – the building or the community. A few weeks ago I went back into school for Balin’s parent-teacher interviews, and I was just a mum. I mean, I was a mum who knew the names of the teachers, but no one treated me differently. I had a couple of side smiles from some colleagues and an excited greeting from a few English colleagues, but mostly there was nothing. It’s not like I expected a chorus of angels to sing when I walked in, but I guess I thought people would be delighted I was back amongst them. That a student would be puppy-like in their hellos and say they missed me. Nope. Just Baz’s mum there to get an update on how he’s travelling in year 11. I feel silly for thinking there would be some big feelings that night, but I also feel a little sad. It’s like when I left my old school – no one begged me to come back. In fact, I’ve never been invited back – not once after having worked there for 10 years. It’s just like once you leave, you’re gone. Door closed.

I’m not saying it’s door closed for my school – it certainly isn’t, that is my substantive position. All my things are still in my office; all my posters still up on the walls in my classroom. I guess… I don’t know what I’m saying or why I’m writing this when I should just go to sleep. Teaching is a funny thing, where you think the mark you’re making is bigger than what it is… or maybe not bigger, just more profound and permanent. The truth is, it’s temporary. The impact is with the students and the relationships you form with them – that lasts at most 5 years in a school after you leave. I’m heading back into school next Wednesday to catch up with my boss and DP, which will be lovely and I see it as more of a social thing than anything else. I don’t even know what the school improvement plan has in it – although from what my son reports it has more about uniform than I would expect – which is weird because that’s a big part of a school. How strange that not even two terms have passed and I feel so disconnected from it.

When it comes to my current job, I couldn’t be happier. Each week I am learning new things – mostly about writing, but also about leadership, adult education, and also about myself as a person. I find that I am comfortable being on my own for long stretches of time, and that the slower pace of the role (compared to teaching) has allowed me to step back and reflect on how I respond to situations. Over the last week I’ve really started reflecting on my time as HT T&L and all the things I should have done differently, and how important strong leadership is in helping nurture middle leaders. I can’t speak highly enough of my boss right now – every week I look forward to learning something new, and not just writing stuff (although, my word, I have learnt so much that would improve my teaching 100 fold) but also about navigating relationships and the complexities of high-stakes work with all its fluidity and uncertainties yet expectations. Every week I just allow myself to keep open to being wrong, to having misconceptions identified and righted, and it’s a really cool feeling. I’ve never been one to claim I know everything, but this role has shown me that such an attitude isn’t just a pose, I genuinely am eagerly embracing the unknown and trusting my boss to be the type of guide I’ve probably wanted and needed for a decade without even knowing it.

Well, this post is rambling and if I had to identify it’s school genre, I know I would struggle. I mean, what even is my purpose? As a writer, I really should know… but maybe that’s part of the joy of writing? I guess I’m firmly in the territory of hybridity.

Everything is different this year…

I started my new job on Wednesday, and whilst initially I was terrified and felt full of regret, it actually feels like it’s going to be great. Different, absolutely, but an opportunity to grow and learn that I know I won’t actually end up regretting. But this post isn’t about my new job, well, only incidentally. It’s actually about being a mum.

In 2015, when I started working at Manly, my eldest son had already been attending the school for a year. When I started he was going into year 8. The fact that he was at the school was my sole motivation for applying for the HT T&L job. I (ridiculously naively) believed that in my role I would transform every single learning experience for him. I believed I would be the solution to his increasing disengagement and underachievement. Of course, I was wrong about that part… but I did get to spend four wonderful years with him at school. We chatted and shared music on the morning drives, we laughed together in the hallways, took photos together at school events… and by the time he was in senior school (and almost entirely fed up with school) he would sleep in my office during free periods. When he decided to leave school early at the end of the first term of year 12, I was sad for me because I knew I would miss him – but I also knew I had my youngest coming into year 9 at our school the following year. Things wouldn’t be too different after all!

So, my baby boy (who was then 14 and is now 16) got to hang out with me at school. Everyday we drove to school together, stopping at 7/11 to buy coffee for him and lunch sandwiches for both of us, telling each other stories from life and from the online world. He’d pop into my office frequently to say hello or grab a pen or drop off some of his stuff he didn’t want to carry around. I’d make jokes with him and his friends when we passed in the hallways, and at lunch I would grab his food from the staffroom fridge. My colleagues would laugh at his silliness, and celebrate his wins in life with us both. When checking playground duty, I would go past where he sat and see him mucking around with his mates – often sitting on top of the huge recycling bin. Sometimes at lunch when he couldn’t find his friends (or he was bored of them), he’d come and chill in my office, listening to music. Just like his older brother, he would sleep on the floor of my office during my before school classes, surprising teachers who came in trying to find me.

This year, if I was at school, I would be teaching my him Philosophy, just like I taught it to his big brother. But, I’m not at school, and the course got cancelled for this year. I feel a strange sort of grief for this lost experience, and all of the lost experiences from this year. As I look at his school clothes laid out ready for this morning, I feel stupidly emotional about him going into year 11. I still have the clearest, clearest memory of him starting year 7. That was a hard day because he had so badly wanted to be starting school with me and his brother, but it didn’t work out that way. All I could do was drop him at the gate. Today he is starting this huge chapter in his life, and again all I can do is drop him at the gate. I know how silly I sound writing this, given so many parents and carers never get the time with their kids like I have had with my sons, but I just have to write it out. I feel teary and full of regret. I want to be with my son this year. I want to have him pop into my office during a free period and complain about a lesson (which I know now I can’t fix) or to tell me something funny that he just saw or heard.

And yet, I know already from my experience of two days in my new role that I am going to be so much more present for him this year than I ever could when teaching. If I’m honest, this year I would have been physically there with him, but mentally and emotionally timetabled out to my students and colleagues. My son would have popped in to say hello, but more often than not he would have found a frazzled mum who could barely find the minute or two needed to laugh at the joke or run to get the lunch ready. I have to remind myself that I had taken on so much at school that it had leeched into my home life and made me far too often exhausted and irritable. So when I give him a cuddle at the gate today, I will keep that awareness of presence in mind because when he comes home I will be present. I won’t have essays or lessons or emails to distract me. Oh, and at school he’ll be free to be year 11 Baz, independent of his teacher mum. This year is going to be different for us both. But it’ll be good different, right?

How to make your English essay more conceptual…

I feel sorry for students in English Advanced because they seem to pretty regularly hear their teachers utter the frustrating sentence ‘Make it more conceptual’. Well, mine do at least! When I took on my new year 12 class at the beginning of the term, I realised that most of them weren’t humanities/Arts kids, and as a result they didn’t have a true love of English, let alone a genuine interest in it. Most are looking forward to careers in engineering, medicine, science, technology. I knew I had to give them something to turn to when I inevitably told them their writing needed to be more conceptual.

There is a bit of discussion around concepts and what we mean by the term, for me it’s shorthand for ‘deep philosophical ideas’ and for me this usually takes the form of a single abstract noun (like hope, reality, truth, existence, desire) which is fleshed out through an argument/interpretation dependent on the intention/purpose/reception of the text. When I was at school I called it ‘thematic concerns’, but we have moved away from this a bit as students who write thematically then to do so in a superficial way – they might structure an essay on three themes explored in a text, one paragraph on each, and never really get to a point where they are demonstrating any insight (the ‘so what?’ kind of moment). So themes has become a bit of a dirty word because it’s associated with B range responses – that’s my perspective anyway. Now, concepts can also relate to craftsmanship – so a concept for English might be genre, perspective, narrative – you can see more on this approach here. Personally I don’t really take that angle because for me I teach essays as concept (what is being said) and craftsmanship (how it is being said). OK. So, are we clear by what I mean by ‘conceptual’ when I say ‘make it more conceptual’? It means what BIG ideas are being communicated by the composer that are relevant outside of the text – so we aren’t talking about plot or characters, we are talking about enduring ideas about life, the world, everything that will continue to be discussed by human beings (maybe conscious robots?) 100 years from now.

Let’s get into how I have helped my students to make their responses to texts more conceptual. Firstly, I introduced them to what I refer to in class as our ‘conceptual frameworks’. These are four theories about human experience that are not specifically related to literature. These will be familiar to teachers, and even maybe some students. I bower-birded them from the Internet and from my own weird wanderings online late at night. So, the four are these: Existential Themes, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, and Anderson’s 555 Personality Types.

We spent a bit of time discussing these in class, and I gave students print outs of each to put in their black books (these are their writing books that live in the classroom and are used for time writing activities almost every lesson). I encourage students to make direct connections between the ideas in our conceptual frameworks and the ideas being represented in their text. We are currently studying Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I remind students they don’t need to directly reference the conceptual framework – no need to say ‘According to Anderson’s list of 555 personality types…’ rather, they use those personality types to describe the traits of characters in the text, and link back to how this traits may or may not be valued by others (Anderson’s list goes from most valued to least valued – so great for vocabulary development!). A recent activity required students to related each framework directly to our novel (the narrative and Orwell’s intentions) and then choose the framework they felt most effectively deepened their conceptual understanding – there was no clear winner, although the two most popular were the Existential Themes and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

The two final strategies I used with my class to develop their conceptual thinking about their text were interrelated – the question quadrant and communities of inquiry. We had finished our analysis of the novel and were moving into essay-writing – time to start choosing a preferred conceptual interpretation of the novel to form the basis of their thesis. Our class goal is to have a ‘bad draft’ of their 1984 essay written before the end of term.

So what is the question quadrant? Basically it is a critical thinking tool designed by philosopher Phillip Cam – I found it in his book Twenty Thinking Tools which I bought to help me better teach Philosophy and critical thinking. In his book he spends a chapter walking you through how to use it, because it’s not something you just try to do without understand how to use it. I actually discovered that the DoE have it as one of their Digital Selector learning tools, and it includes some slides you can download – here. They are awesome and I used them successfully with my class! The question quadrant relies on students having all read the same text (can be a short or extended piece of fiction or non-fiction, poetry, could be a film etc) and then they spend time asking questions related to the text. The questions that they ask are categorised either as:
* closed textual questions – questions that can be answered by knowing the text well, I tell my class you can put your finger on the answer in the book (e.g. Where does Winston meet Julia?)
* open textual questions – questions about the text that can be answered using your imagination (e.g. What is Julia’s greatest fear)
* closed intellectual questions – questions that have an accepted ‘answer’ but are discovered through research, basically these are contextual questions (e.g. Which totalitarian regimes inspired Orwell’s creation of Oceania?)
* open intellectual questions – questions that don’t have a single accepted answer and that require collaborative inquiry to get closer to answering (e.g. Is it acceptable to manipulate the truth to obtain what you want?)
It is the last type of question – the open intellectual questions – that really deepen a conceptual interpretation of a text. However, as I told my class, when you’re writing an essay for English you actually need to be able to understand and think about your text at the closed and open textual questions as well as closed intellectual questions level if you want to write a successful essay. Deep textual knowledge and contextual understanding underpin the more philosophical conceptual concerns central to an essay’s thesis.

As I went through the question quadrant, I had my students write down one example question in their books and asked students to share to check for understanding. When we got to the open intellectual questions, I made them all write one question in their book, and then I had them each read out their question to the class and I wrote them on a Google document projected for the class to see. I was SOOO impressed by their questions, and could immediately see the potential for very sophisticated conceptual arguments about the novel. You can see some of their questions below.

The next lesson, I introduced them to the final strategy used – community of inquiry. Basically this is just a structured dialogue responding to a set of questions or a single question. I had my class choose their top three questions from our list of 20, and then we selected the top three from the class. These became the focus on their communities of inquiry. You can see the what this was structured by reading the slides below:

Each group of 6 or 7 students discussed the question for 10 minutes (I used a timer) and were encouraged to use examples from the novel and the real world to support their points. The students not in the community of inquiry sat on the outside and took notes in a Google doc – you can see a snippet of their notes below. From this process I was excited to see that they were touching on some really strong ideas central to philosophy, specifically the branches of philosophy that I teach to year 11 (three students in my year 12 class were philosophers in year 11 with me). The questions they selected to discuss covered ethics, epistemology and metaphysics (including ontology). I made this explicit in my discussion at the end – you can see in my notes beside their questions where I identified the philosophical focus of their discussions. I’m a total nerd who just thrives on finding connections, and this got me super excited!

The following lesson I introduced students to a way of approaching their thesis generation which is focused on their conceptual interpretation of the novel. I referred them back to our conceptual frameworks, to their open intellectual questions, and to the notes they had taken during the communities of inquiry. I also encouraged them to try converting some of the open intellectual questions into statements which could become lines of argument in their essay, and showed them a couple of examples I had done with their questions – see examples below. I had to stop myself from doing all 20, I just love that sort of writing-as-thinking activity! I set them the task of writing their bad draft introduction and three lines of argument by next Tuesday, so I’m really eager to see what they come up with. They’ve been writing conceptually all term in our timed writing activities at the start of each lesson, so I hope that translates into making the essay-writing process easier for them. If in doubt, they can return to our conceptual frameworks and use one of more of them to frame their own conceptual interpretation around. (For those thinking I’m neglecting the craftsmanship of Orwell and the actual narrative, fear not, we spent weeks and weeks on that too!). Anyway, this is how I support my students to make their writing ‘more conceptual’ – after all, isn’t thinking deeply about ‘life, the universe and everything’ why we study literature in the first place? 😉

Marking, grading, whatever you want to call it… it’s core business, right?

Marking is intense because it is both physically and intellectually demanding. It is also a core part of our role as teachers, and thus unavoidable. I’m a high school English teacher, so I feel like my marking load is exponentially greater than everyone else, but I doubt that is true. With the introduction of mandatory and frequent data gathering on students, it feels like the marking burden is going to continue to increase significantly. This, of course, is a problem for teacher workload and the dreaded ‘b’ word – burnout. Currently I am neck deep in HSC marking – this is an optional activity, so I can’t compare it to the mandatory marking load, but of course I am going to anyway. Why? Because the experience is the same whether I am paid to do it or not, and in fact what HSC marking does is crystallise just how intense marking can be on mind and body. When you tell people you are HSC marking they have sympathy and admiration in bucketloads. Tell them you’re giving feedback on year 10 draft essays and the response is less so – they might even think you’re a nuts. (Not denying this claim yet!)

So what is marking all about anyway? Why is it such a fundamental feature of teaching? Has it always been that way? Look, I’m not about to go into a long history of educational practice because basically my eyes are stinging as I type this having just woken up tired again. But from my understanding of history, marking and education are a fairly recent phenomenon. Well, at least to the extent that we do it. When I say marking, I’m referring specifically to the practice of having students complete a specific set task (typically written but it isn’t always and the medium doesn’t really influence the nature of the marking experience in my opinion) which is then submitted to the teacher for one of two purposes – to be assessed (usually against a criteria and often for the purpose of reporting on student achievement) or to receive feedback (usually in anticipation of the former, but not always). I think it quite funny that regardless of which of the two I am doing, I refer to both as ‘marking’. Maybe that’s why it feels like I never stop marking, haha! Well, I just Googled ‘marking definition’ and it doesn’t give me what I want… and I’m thinking that’s because in America they use the term ‘grading’, right? My Google definition is this: ‘the act, process, or an instance of making or giving a mark.’ But the word ‘mark’ here doesn’t mean 15/20, it means like a little coloured tag or a symbol on the side of an animal, haha. Maybe that’s a good analogy for what marking does to the recipient (cos as teachers we sometimes forget about the receiver of our hard work) – a little coloured tag or symbol that students carry around with them. (Genuinely don’t get me started on the impact that marking – giving a numerical mark or grade – has on kids, we know I don’t like it, right?)

So where was I going with this? (Flicks to mental notes about purpose of rambling, ahem, discursive piece of writing at 6.30am.) Oh yeah, why do we do it? Why do we mark/grade stuff so obsessively? I guess it’s to know if what we’ve taught has stuck, right? For some people it’s to find out how smart kids are – like what their potential is based on a criteria of excellence. I’m more of the belief that what my students produce reflects my performance as a teacher. Of course this isn’t entirely true (life has a way of bleeding into education and there’s not much we can do to stop it, thus full responsibility for student success isn’t ours I suppose) but it is a good mindset to have if you want to improve and grow as an educator. I suppose that adds a third dimension to the intensity of marking – the emotional. It can be quite dispiriting to spend hours marking work that isn’t at the standard you would hope it was, and you can feel a bit of creeping despair about your practice and your potential. At least that’s how I feel when my students’ results don’t reflect my hopes for them, and really for myself (given that ego can never be separated from the marks your students receive, not if we’re really honest).

The physical aspect of marking can’t be denied. Right now I’m sitting on my bed, typing this rambling post on my iPhone, eyes stinging, back aching, unable to go morning running like I had been for the last 6 months. Marking require teachers to sit for prolonged periods of time, doing relative movements, with intense focus. Almost everyone I know who has done HSC marking (which requires you to do sustained periods of marking with only small breaks) has had some back or wrist trouble. One of my colleagues has RSI in her wrist from marking papers in her first years of teaching. My recommendation is to stand and mark if you can, to get a riser for your laptop, a separate mouse and keyboard – laptops really can give you neck problems too because of being hunched over and looking down. In saying that, I marked for four hours last night whilst sitting on my lounge and the laptop on my lap. I’ll pay for that tomorrow. I guess the physical aspect is also the fact that you can’t fit marking into your school day – not typically – and that means that you’re doing overtime. Either you’re marking at home after school, or on your weekends, and this takes away from you ability to take a break and refresh.

I feel like these days my posts are becoming more and more about teacher workload and how difficult it is to balance. I try to be constructive and positive, but perhaps the exhaustion of the last few weeks has caught up? Yesterday my colleague used the best word to describe how I’m feeling – fatigued. My goal is that teachers don’t feel that way (I’m talking generally not about the madness of HSC marking which is optional) – that we feel fresh and ready for each day with our learners. Maybe my next post will be a part 2 on marking – some tips for avoiding the physical, emotional and intellectual fatigue that it has the potential to inspire? We’ll see. Until then, I’m going to be late for class so I won’t spellcheck this post. Enjoy the typos! 😆