The Nurse, the Wicked Fiend (#moocspeare)

Romeo and Juliet - Nurse realizes...

Reading, particularly reading the text of plays (not to mention texts of uncertain reliability in terms of the author’s preferences), is an intense negotiation of the competing forces of interpretation of words, context and authorial intention in the melange of previous readings and performances and critical discussions.

Reading Romeo and Juliet this time around I’m seeing many things—almost too many things—in new ways. Some of it is being sparked by the conversations on the “Hack Shakespeare” Facebook group and the occasional #moocspeare Tweets. The rest comes from some change in the forces of negotiation between myself, my text and memory.

The nurse is a character I’m seeing in a very different light. I’ve always read her as a kind of Falstaffian character, similarly comedic but with significantly less depth. Now I’m seeing her as a significantly darker, even malevolent actor. Her role is clearly meant to be important (I’d be surprised if any characters other than Romeo and Juliet themselves get more time onstage). And in her role as caretaker and messenger, her words seem to not just predict but—Iago-like—provoke ill actions until she betrays Juliet, pushing her to marry Paris, a move that is either incredibly stupid or deeply malicious. “O most wicked fiend” indeed!

Or maybe I’m being too hard on the nurse. Perhaps she’s just being pragmatic, a trait whose contrast is so heightened in contrast with the feelings of pure love between Romeo and Juliet that her pragmatic approach—in which Paris and Romeo are interchangeable—feels hostile. She’s certainly intended to be the earthy counterpart to Juliet (a role Mercutio, with his ribaldry and vulgarity, is Romeo’s), providing the opposite pole in one of the intense dualities in the play, pure love vs earthly love.

Shakespeare is Shakespeare because of the depth he brings to the stories he adapted from other, simpler sources. The Nurse’s character—and her role—change. She’s never merely a comic foil, just as Falstaff is never merely a comic buffoon (which heightens the tragedy of Prince Hal’s rejection of him), but as the play progresses the balance shifts from mostly humor with a blunted blade beneath to a fully revealed cutting edge. “Women grow by men,” the nurse notes early…but Juliet is to learn they die by them too.

When My Time Comes

This song has been in my head for months. No matter where I go, how far forward or back, I remain balanced on the razor edge of the knife.

“When My Time Comes”

There were moments of dreams
I was offered to save.
I lived less like a workhorse,
more like a slave.
I thought that one quick moment
that was noble or brave
would be worth the most of my life.

So I pointed my fingers
and shouted few quotes I knew,
as if something that’s written
should be taken as true.
But every path I had taken
and conclusion I drew
would put truth back under the knife.

And now the only piece of advice that continues to help is:
anyone that’s making anything new only breaks something else.

When my time comes,
When my time comes,

So I took what I wanted
and put it out of my reach.
I wanted to pay for my successes
with all my defeats.
And if Heaven was all
that was promised to me
why don’t I pray for death?

Now it seems like the unraveling
started too soon.
Now I’m sleeping in hallways
and I’m drinking perfume,
and I’m speaking to mirrors,
and I’m howling at moons,
while the worse and the
worse that it gets.

Oh you can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks.
Yes, you can stare into the abyss, but it’s staring right back.

—Dawes
—from North Hills

De-Centering and #rhizo15

Dave Cormier, Chief Rhizologismat(g)ician, makes an interesting comment about how he wants to position himself in #rhizo15:

Broad based community leadership (see DS106) is interesting, but not what I’m trying to do. I am trying to stay ‘just close enough’ to the formal education model that some of the lessons that I learn in rhizo could leak over into the formal system.

Dave has probably said this before and I wasn’t paying attention (to be fair, I’ve been hiding out in a big literature, writing and lexicography cave for a few years). Intuitively, #rhizo feels significantly further away from the formal education model than DS106…so far away that I wonder if the notions of #rhizo itself, whatever they may be, can leak over to the formal model (a different thing, of course, than participants bringing what they learn to—or using what they are learning in—their formal classroom environments).

This isn’t just an abstract question, as I’m due to start teaching a class in less than a month and I’m still wondering how the lessons I am learning might inform, apply to, or be brought to that course.

It’s the very “not-thereness” of #rhizo—which at this point is basically Dave posting a video each week with a provocative-but-not-necessarily-new topic with the instructions “explore and share”—that makes it great and difficult to identify as a means of application. Which isn’t, of course, what Dave is talking about above…he talks about the lessons that he has and will learn. Of those I already have many. But needs must, so I am forced to think about how the model of #rhizo itself might help me with the class I have to teach.

Feuds and Fate in Romeo and Juliet (#moocspeare)

Usual warning: meandering, “rough-draft” thoughts follow.

I’m starting to wonder if the “real” fate in Romeo and Juliet isn’t the fate ordained by the stars but their own romantic attachment to that fate as embodied by the feud between their houses that (they believe) must divide them.

Until now, I’ve alway understood the feud between the Montagues and Capulets to be deep, enduring and consistently violent. But for some reason, the moment when old Capulet calls for his sword and Lady Capulet offers a crutch (in multiple senses) I started wondering: what if the feud, while long-standing, was because of that very length, waning? Except for the aptly named Mercutio, whose mercurial temper undoes himself and everyone around him—and who is neither Montague nor Capulet!—there’s not much to say that the feud is more than a tradition. Old Montague and old Capulet appear to want the feud to continue, but not necessarily with vigor: old Capulet stays Tybalt’s hand when Romeo is unmasked…but even before that did anyone really think that Romeo would go unrecognized? I don’t think so…masked events were common but it was also, I think, understood that most participants would be known to one another anyway. The masks were—in the same manner but the opposite intent of the feud—a shared fiction that made for a particular context for action. There’s no real sense that, but for Mercutio’s hot-headedness and Tybalt’s fire, the houses were actively at each other’s throats.

What if the feud wasn’t just below a boiling point, stoked to overflowing by the actions of the characters, but just an excuse for the actions of the selfish or limited characters?

In that sense, the feud becomes a pretext and context for the very human, personal actions of Mercutio, Tybalt, Romeo, and Juliet. Mercutio, crucially of neither house, provokes an enocunter. Tybalt is just as determined. But after the death of Mercutio—even after the death of Tybalt—all might not necessarily be lost. What might have happened if Romeo and Juliet had simple declared their love? Might not the force of their love just as likely unified the houses? The outcome certainly couldn’t have been worse.

But Romeo and Juliet are both romantics in their own way. Romeo is committed to a romantic idea of love; Juliet is committed to the romantic idea of the enduring feud that must transgress it. Between them they are possibly creating a fiction of necessarily doomed love. In this way it is not the stars that determine their fate, but they who make up a fate of their own that comes from and then feeds on their young love.

Romeo and Juliet Reading Notes: Prologue (#moocspeare)

Fate and star-crossed lovers

The mysteries of Romeo and Juliet deepen—as does my perception of the play itself—every time I read it. And those mysteries begin to reveal themselves in the first lines of the prologue, with the description of Romeo and Juliet as “a pair of star-crossed lovers.”

How star-crossed? How are we to understand the grip of fate in this play? To be sure, people in Shakespeare’s time typically believed more literally in fate and astrology and were, on the whole, a significantly more superstitious lot, than the average reader today (see “Superstition, Folklore, and Astrology in Shakespeare’s Time”).

On the other hand, Shakespeare’s other plays don’t—and this is all subject to my amateur understanding and memory—treat fate as the kind of immovable, inescapable force one might expect based on the explicit phrase “star-crossed,” the general feelings in the culture at the time, and the end of Romeo and Juliet in this particular play. Hamlet, for example, clearly changes in the play from feeling buffeted by the ineluctable winds of fate to taking action and thereby taking his future into his own hands. Perhaps Hamlet’s death is subject to fate, but the manner of getting there is up to him…should he choose to exercise his will. Even Macbeth, where fate is so explicitly invoked, it is also questioned. Macbeth may be fated to be king, it is his character that determines how he’ll get there.

The Sonnet Prologue

Why open with a sonnet? The primary source for Shakespeare’s play—Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet—starts with one, but I like to think that Shakespeare was more thoughtful than to simply take on the received form. The sonnet was a typical form for writing about and expressing feelings of love…and while Shakespeare doesn’t use the Petrarchan form, the plot of the play w/r/t Romeo and Juliet (and even Romeo and Rosaline) is Petrarchan.

And why not maintain the sonnet prologues through the play? Does the orderly, structured sonnet break down under the fight against fate? Does the play just get too wild and defies convention?

The Chorus

Why have a chorus? How does it relate to the tradition of the chorus in Greek drama (if it does)? Why does the chorus appear before only the first two scenes? It’s not as if the drama particularly needs the context-setting or the plot synopsis. I guess it emphasizes the presence of fate, that the story about to be presented has already unfolded because the entire plot is summarized.

Death-marked love

Is there any Shakespeare play in which the imagery of Death is as vivid?

Hints of Themes to Come

A few things struck me in the Prologue that become recurring themes later:

The opening word, “two,” is a literal invocation of the recurring theme of dualities and binaries—love/hate, light/dark, fate/will, etc.

“Civil hands” is the first of many references to hands. Bloody hands. The hands of marriage. Saints’ hands. “Let lips do what hands do.” And that’s not even to get into all the fingers!

Is Good Digital Pedagogy Just Good Pedagogy? (#rhizo15)

Reflexive Daguerreotype

Jesse Stommel writes:

My call is to stop attempting to distinguish so incessantly between online and on-ground learning, between the virtual and the face-to-face, between digital pedagogy and chalkboard pedagogy. Good digital pedagogy is just good pedagogy.

I agree. But I must disagree with the implicit idea that the last line represents a reflexive relationship because of the deep assumptions about technological determinism and affordances buried in the reverse.

Good digital pedagogy is good pedagogy. But good pedagogy is not necessarily good digital pedagogy because it is likely incomplete and possibly insufficient…unless one assumes both a strongly anti-technological-determinist stance and that relatively new technologies don’t offer any unique affordances when compared to the old. I used to embrace the former—tech-determinism struck me as the ultimate admission of weakness and a ceding of agency. Now, as I get older, I realize that (like most everything else) it is much more complicated. I realize that technology is a part of our environment and the way that our environment effects the things we call learning is complicated and not wholly under (or out of!) our control. Technology doesn’t make us stupid…but nor do we entirely control the effects of technology on our actions and behaviors.

Similarly, while I don’t see contemporary technology—as amazing and exhilarating as it can be—as a panacea or magic or something absolutely new and unique. But unless I engage in a serious fit of reductivism, in which everything about teaching and learning boils down to a few abstract principles, I don’t see how I can deny the unique affordances (and I use that term deliberately because it is the most accurate—implying a relationship between form, function, features and behavior—not just as a buzzword). Just as good pedagogy makes sound use of the venerable technologies of the codex and the blackboard, good digital pedagogy makes sound use of digital technologies in a way the former may not.

None of which is to disagree with Jesse’s contention that good digital pedagogy is good pedagogy, only to note that I don’t think it’s just that…and that the impulse to interpret the statement as reflexive—which might just be my misreading—is the kind of misunderstanding that is, when it comes to practices rather than root philosophical principles, potentially limiting and dismissive of potential.

I was also quite taken with Jesse’s note on passive resistance and Bartleby because it recognizes that Bartleby, who I refer to often, is more than the utterer of an irresistible catchphrase and more than a man at the end of his sad tether. The story is (I’m risking incurring the wrath of Audrey Watters with this simplification) a tale of humanity amidst, within and beneath the industrial revolution and offers, I think, significant parallels to our similar existence inside not-inside the technological machine where we can (not must) make choices…choices we can ignore in favor of simple technological somnambulism, as Langdon Winner aptly put it, or to spend out the “bag of gold” that Gardner Campbell revealed to so many of us.1


  1. It strikes me that Gardner’s analogy is apt here as well. The pedagogical riches we have to spend are, like those in the bags held by Freire and Dewey and others, a currency. In that sense, pedagogy is pedagogy. But the currency in the bag I hold today is different in at least some ways that do—or at least should—matter. 

Countable Infinities (#rhizo15)

Close to Infinity

Still thinking about Dave’s #rhizo15 “What Should We Count?” post. Wrote and discarded a long post analogizing “learning” and “baking”—both non-count nouns that nonetheless involve many countable things—and poking at educators (not Dave) and institutions that conflate measurement with assessment. Once I began meandering about beginners vs. experts and art vs. craft and how those countable, measurable things do often, at those usually earlier stages, amount to assessment, I knew I’d gone off the rails.

The very idea of “counting” is problematic in my head right now thanks to delving into a book about infinity that includes the idea of countable and non-countable infinities. Somehow, it seems to me that learning is a non-countable infinity and the things we do as learners are countable infinities…but both involve a lot that is beyond our grasp and perception in ways that matter and very much do not (does the depth of the deep matter if you win a medal in the breaststroke? If you drown?).

Normally at this point I’d turns to Whitman’s “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, which conveys more about this topic in a handful of lines than acres of my blog posts.

Or I could go simple with Hamlet’s ordinal dizziness (I will, someday, use part of this as the title for a paper or conference presentation):

“O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; / I have not art to reckon my groans”

But, perhaps, finally, a bit of Carl Sandburg is more appropriate:

“Number Man”

(for the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach)

He was born to wonder about numbers.

He balanced fives against tens
and made them sleep together
and love each other.

He took sixes and sevens
and set them wrangling and fighting
over raw bones.

He woke up twos and fours
out of baby sleep
and touched them back to sleep.

He managed eights and nines,
gave them prophet beards,
marched them into mists and mountains.

He added all the numbers he knew,
multiplied them by new-found numbers
and called it a prayer of Numbers.

For each of a million cipher silences
he dug up a mate number
for a candle light in the dark.

He knew love numbers, luck numbers,
how the sea and the stars
are made and held by numbers.

He died from the wonder of numbering.
He said good-by as if good-by is a number.

—Carl Sandburg

I learn in this letter (#moocspeare)

Fabulous Lettering

The first Shakespeare in Community (aka #moocspeare, I think) assignment:

…choose first words from one of the plays we will be discussing, and write about them some of your own first words.

Being an avid snail mail correspondent, even today, and enthusiast of the vitality of letter-writing and epistolary forms, how can I resist the first words of Much Ado About Nothing (though not one of my favorite plays): “I learn in this letter…”? It allows me to think about the scores of times letters appear in Shakespeare, often playing a crucial role in the development of characters and themes.

Letters play a role in multiple deaths in Hamlet. Ophelia’s return of Hamlet’s letters lays sparks to the tinder of Hamlet’s madness—feigned or otherwise—leading to her death and Hamlet’s interception of Claudius’s letter turns his treachery upon the heads of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And we can’t forget the short letter Hamlet writes to the “high and mighty” Claudius, who is clearly confused by it, or his letter to Horatio in which he questions the fragility of the physical letter itself.

Lady MacBeth arrives on-stage reading a letter whose contents are shortly revealed to be out of date. Curiously, she later writes a letter in her sleep whose contents are never revealed, as far as I can remember, to anyone.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, of course, rife with love letters, and a significant question in the play revolves around the effect (or lack of effect) of those letters. Shakespeare doesn’t give a lot of stage directions, but does direct a character to tear up a letter in front of another and than snatch the pieces back as soon as the second character is gone.

Henry IV, Part 1 actually has a whole, short scene featuring letter carriers, though I must admit I don’t understand its importance.

And as I’ve recently been re-reading King Lear, I’m struck by how often letters are mentioned, directly and as implied in the comings and going of messengers, not to mention Edmund’s treacherous forged letter to Gloucester!

I’m sure there are many more examples that aren’t coming directly to mind. As, seemingly, with every aspect of Shakespeare, I assume that this has been written about many times, probably at book length. One of the maddening aspects of being a Shakespeare enthusiast is constantly discovering that even one’s most “brilliant” thoughts have already been exhausted in the literature…leading to my twin strategy of resisting digging into that literature until I feel I’ve done the idea a sound turn by myself and proceeding with the assumption that as a reader, not a researcher, “new to me” is new enough.

Those Classroom Measures (#rhizo15)

Watching Dave’s 2nd #rhizo15 video query about what we should be counting—in other words, what counts—in learning, and the first thing that popped into my head was a thought to the tune of one of my favorite songs:

My off-the-cuff lyrics:

Who gives a fuck about those classroom measures?
I’ve seen those research papers too
They’re cruel
So if there’s any other way
To see the world
It’s fine with me, with me

Why would you think of us that way
Especially when I always said that you
Haven’t got the words for me
All your papers dripping with disdain
Through the pain
I always tell the truth

Who gives a fuck about those classroom measures?
I read OL-Daily too
I did
I met the ed tech gurus
Their rhizo-moocy things work
For me, for me