Teaching Hamlet Adaptations

Today, I did three new things with my students that all worked much more effectively than I expected: I taught an article I wrote, we discussed seven different versions of the same scene from Hamlet, and we finished with William Sanders’ short story “The Undiscovered.”

I was hesitant about teaching my own article:  while it is about Shakespeare adaptation, my article is about an adaptation we’re not reading in class (Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series).  But since the particular course I’m teaching has the explicit goal of introducing undergraduates to the research performed by professors and graduate students at UConn, I felt it was important to actually show them my work.  I thought it would also have the added benefit of being an argument that I know inside and out, and I could also talk about what the drafts looked like (all 42 of them), the initial research questions that prompted the project, the scholarly conversations that I envisioned the project entering, etc. So for our actual discussion, I framed this as a writing exercise, rather than simply one more theoretical text.  We dissected it in terms of the moves that Joseph Harris discusses in his book Rewriting, which we’ve been using as our primary writing handbook.  We looked at moments where I “came to terms” with someone else’s argument, where I did forwarding, where I countered other arguments, and where I “took an approach” or used the driving questions from one project to interrogate another text.  My students did a great job figuring out how transitional moments are designed to cue the reader to these moves (especially countering).  Then I asked them to turn these issues on their head by coming to terms with my article, and then speculating about how they could forward, counter, or take an approach from my article.  As an exercise, it seemed to work really well, and I hope will help them when they start reviewing each other’s writing in a week.

The second activity for the day was a dissection of the “to be or not to be” playlist I had constructed on youtube for them.

We focused mostly on the “real” adaptations of the soliloquy, which go in chronological order after the “A Small Rewrite” sketch, starting with Olivier, followed by Burton, Gibson, Branagh, Hawke, and Tennant.  We also talked a little bit about the clip from Slings and Arrows, in which a director talks with his actor for Hamlet who isn’t sure about how to play the scene.  This clip is great because it gets students to think not just about the mis-en-scène, the shots, the acting, and the lines (which I had asked them all to focus on when they were watching the playlist before class) but also on the way actors/filmmakers bring awareness of other versions to their own adaptations, as well as the issues inherent in interpreting and setting up Hamlet’s speech with regard to whether he knows if Polonius, Claudius, and Ophelia are in the room, and whether or not Hamlet is aware of them, and how that can change the meaning of the scene.  My students did a fantastic job dissecting how the shots in each version worked, though they had a bit of a harder time interpreting the change in costuming and mis-en-scène in the Slings and Arrows clip.  At the end, students seemed to have universally liked Burton and Tennant’s versions the most, but for opposite reasons: Burton’s because it’s energetic, forceful, and thoughtful, all at the same time; Tennant’s because it was “spine-tingling” and causes the viewer to really feel how exhausted Hamlet is.  Branagh came in third because of the really fascinating over-the-shoulder shot into the mirror behind which Polonius and Claudius hide, but my students didn’t seem as enamored with his actual delivery.  I think they found Olivier’s version campy, Gibson’s bland in everything but setting, and didn’t quite know what to do with Hawke’s version out of context.

The final thing we discussed was William Sander’s short story “The Undiscovered,” which is an alternate history story in which Shakespeare accidentally gets shipped off to the New World, where he is captured by Native Americans and turned into a slave. He is then captured by another tribe, the Cherokees, which is where the short story starts, as narrated by a member of the Cherokee tribe.  Shakespeare learns their language(s), and he decides to translate Hamlet into a play for the Cherokee, but they all think Hamlet’s a comedy, and he swears off play-writing from then on. I was surprised by how much my students loved this story. It produced some of the most energetic discussion we’ve had all semester, and we’ve had some pretty energetic discussion. The story is great because it talks about the problems of cross-cultural translation, and also poses some challenges for the idea of the universality of Shakespeare’s genius.  My students did some “taking an approach” work on the fly, borrowing some of the critical moves I made in my article and thinking about whether they worked for this story, too (ultimate conclusion: yes, but with some caveats).




Fan Fiction Syllabus

I originally posted about a potential syllabus on fan fiction back in 2008 on my old blog, and thought it might be time to bring it back given my last few posts have been about teaching and developing courses I may never get to teach. Here’s what I wrote then:

Over at Cranky Epistles, the Cranky Lit Prof has a post where she complains about the fact that someone in her school wants to create a three credit course on fan fiction:

I cursed out loud in a faculty meeting. Once again, the barbarians are rattling the gates of Rome!

The subject on the table: creating a for-credit, interdisciplinary seminar around fan fiction stemming from books and films — both reading it and writing it.

Without thinking (or engaging the filter that should exist between my brain and my mouth, but often does not), I uttered, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” Shocked glances followed this desecration of academia’s amour-propre.

Aside from the copyright issues that plague the entire genre…who makes the call as to what “fandom” the readings are plucked from? Who determines what is “canon?”

What the Hell?

I’ve read fan fiction — I can admit that. There are some stunningly good authors who will never publish in the “respectable” fields, but whose work is seen by hundreds on line. Creative writing is smething to be encouraged as an artisitc outlet. However, three credits for perusing FanFiction.net and writing reaction papers to a Harry Potter/Ron Weasley love story, or writing your own take on the subtext of a Col. O’Neill/Daniel Jackson relationship from “SG-1″ seems a bit ridiculous. Even as a cross-departmental exercise.

I made a comment on the post that I would like to expand, for the academic exercise of it all (and to procrastinate on things like writing my papers and doing laundry and cleaning). Basically, the rest of this post is my first thoughts towards creating a syllabus on fan fiction. What Crazy Lit Prof describes is not an academic class, but it could easily become one with just a little tweaking and fleshing out.

Step One: Beef up the theory. There would need to be a lot of literary theory and sociological studies of fan communities. I’d probably start with some Jameson, as well as Benjamin and Adorno (you know,Frankfurt school of cultural criticism). I’d include some of the theoretical work that’s been done in Shakespeare and Popular Culture, which is where some of the heaviest debates about appropriation and adaptation happen. We’d read some Iser and some of the more phenomenological reader response critics, maybe even Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction. Then we’d hit one or more of the academic books on fan communities: Henry Jenkin’s Textual Poachers is the classic text, but dated. A search on Amazon shows at least five books on fan fiction alone, not counting broader studies of fan communities, all published in the last three or four years. At least one of these would probably be worth using.

Step Two: Choose your fan fic carefully. Crazy Lit Prof wants to know what would be “canonical” in this class. Personally, I would probably start with fan fiction actually about canonical texts: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, The Brontes, maybe Milton. By dealing with a “real” canon of literary texts, all of which are out of copyright, you can actually require students to read fan fiction that is published: Mr. Darcy Takes a WifeThe Jane Austen Mysteries, etc. I’d probably include Jasper Fforde because while not strictly fan fiction, there are a lot of elements of fan fiction in his novels, he has a lot of commentary on appropriation and adaptation of texts, and he’s an author that seems to encourage fan fiction based on his books. Anyway, I’d pair the reading of these novels with the novels they are actually based on: with this particular list, students would have to read Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Hamlet. Not bad for a class that could be lacking canonical credibility.

As for TV/Film fandoms, Star Trek would be the most logical fandom to include because so much scholarly work has been done on it, and there are a substantial number of published fan novels by both professional and amateur novelists. Buffy the Vampire Slayer could also work because of all the scholarly work that has been done through Slayage. (And really: isn’t Slayage proof that there are academic fan communities? The two things do not have to be mutually exclusive!) I’d probably include an assignment that lets students choose any fandom they like and then do an analysis of it, but Crazy is right that deciding on fandoms to include could get really arbitrary.

Step Three: Spend some time talking about the problems with fan fiction. For example, Robin Hobb (major fantasy author) posted a while back on the problems she has with people writing fan fiction about her novels. Then there are the copy right issues with fan fiction. This is the section that might help make the class truly interdisciplinary. Bring in the legal debates and fights, discussions of how intellectual property work in our society, etc.

So, that’s a start on what I think a syllabus on Fan Fiction should look like. Teaching fan fiction could be a great way to talk about the relationships between texts and audiences, about reader response theory, intellectual property, communal stories, etc.

Obviously, there are some things about this syllabus I would want to update now.  I’d want to make sure Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation was a framing text for the course.  I’d include more on intertextuality, probably in the form of Kristeva, as well as Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life. I’d change some of the canonical fan fiction that we would read: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the one hand, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries video blog on the other (just to be clear: PPZ is annoying, LBD is awesome). And so on.

But, why did I decide it was appropriate to repost this? I was at jury duty this morning, waiting to see if I would have to serve.  And because I cannot turn off my brain, I was contemplating what a class on urban fantasy might look like, and thinking especially about both the necessity and difficulty of justifying such a course to most departments (which is what made me think about the Cranky Lit Prof post). I think my justification for a course on urban fantasy would be similarly sociological and theoretical to the justification I was implicitly providing in my original defense of a truly academic class on fan fiction: we aren’t studying the texts (fan fiction or urban fantasy) for the sake of studying the texts because they are beautiful or–on some level at least–true, the way we might with Shakespeare, Milton, or other traditionally canonical texts. Instead, we are studying the texts in order to get at larger questions about our culture: why vampires and werewolves now, at this particular cultural moment? Why is this “urban” fantasy–what do space and place have to do with these stories, and why do they matter at this particular time? How do these texts fit into larger movements and issues?

I’m interested in book history for the same reasons I am interested in fan fiction and these sometimes oddly popular fantasy novels: I want to know how and why people respond to texts in the ways they do. Fan fiction, whether by writers like Milton who write canonically accepted Bible fan-fic or the writers on An Archive of Our Own, is the ultimate reader response, because it allows for much of the complexity (or lack thereof, I suppose) of a reader’s response to a text to become visible to those of us who are scholars, just the way commonplace books and marginal notes do for us who work on the sixteenth century. Purchasing histories are similarly important for understanding readers and culture, whether they are of Bibles and religious books (as in Ian Green’s Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England), or of Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse, and American Gods. This is the sociology of literature, the study of why we read what we read, and how we respond to it.

Designing Courses: the Bible and Literature

One of the few fun things about being on the job market is that, in preparation for interviews, I need to start thinking about all the different courses I might want to teach at different schools.  All these schools have slightly different course descriptions: will the Renaissance survey be one course, covering from 1485 to 1660, or two, one focused on the sixteenth century and the other on the seventeenth? Or will it break into two along formal lines, with one course focused on poetry and prose, and the other on drama?  Will the Brit Lit Survey break into two around 1798/1800, or will it split into three with the breaks at 1616 and 1832? Will the school not even have literature surveys based in time periods and nations, but instead have Introductions to each of the forms: Introduction to Poetry, Introduction to Fiction, and Introduction to Drama?  Or will there even be an Introduction to Literature course, which is expected to introduce students to all three?

There are specialist courses, the classes that you use to answer the interview question, “What would be your dream course?”  For me, these might be classes in Milton, Shakespeare and popular culture, the Metaphysical poets, early modern martyrdom, or book history.

And then there are the other sorts of classes that I would love to teach occasionally if they were available, but aren’t directly in my field: Religion and Literature. The Bible as Literature. Speculative Fiction.

All of this is a meandering discussion to get to what I’ve been working on (on and off for the last few weeks).  For most of these courses, except in the last category, I already had syllabi put together for last year’s job market.  I may need to tweak a few to fit different schools’ schedules (oh, you’re on a 10 week quarter system instead of a 16 week semester?) or course descriptions, but mostly, they’re done. But, to give myself something to do that will keep me from panicking about the state of the job market and the fact that I’ve only got one MLA interview so far and it’s not even for a TT position (imagine saying all of that in one breath), I’m putting together some syllabi for a few of these other courses.

Right now, the syllabus I’m most pleased with is for the Bible and Literature.  Now, different schools have very different approaches to teaching the Bible and Literature just like they do with Renaissance or survey courses: there’s the Bible as literature, the Bible in literature, and the more ambiguous Bible and Literature.  The Bible as literature focuses on the Bible’s literary forms and genres, and how to interpret the Bible as a literary (rather than strictly historical or religious) text. Sometimes, though not usually, it involves looking at how modern literary theories (such as post-colonial or gender theory) can be applied to Biblical texts.  The Bible in Literature, on the other hand, examines the Bible’s influence on things we more usually understand as literature, from the influence of Christianity on the Beowulf poet up through Flannery O’Connor.  The Bible and literature can potentially mean any or all three of things I’ve mentioned (and probably a few things I’ve forgotten to mention).

I think my own approach, by preference at least, will be the combined model. I think students need to understand the literary qualities of biblical texts, but I also am very interested in how these biblical texts get used in texts we more immediately think of as literature. After all, the adaptation of Biblical texts–the parodic rewritings in Chaucer and the Wakefield Master, and Milton and Herbert’s quite serious adaptations–were what drew me to graduate school in the first place.

So, I’ve decided on a three-pronged approach to teaching the Bible and Literature:

  1. The Bible isn’t a prong so much as the handle, I suppose.  I want to give students a smattering of everything, but we’ll focus on the elements that get most used and referenced in our culture.  For Hebrew Bible narratives, we’ll focus on the Creation/Fall, Abraham and Isaac, the Exodus, Saul and David, Job, Daniel, and Esther. We’ll also spend a fair bit of time on the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah. For New Testament narrative, we’ll read all of Luke and John, a big chunks of of Acts of the Apostles and Revelation. For epistles, we’ll read Paul’s letter to the Romans, as well as the book of James. And we’ll do the book of Judith from the Apocrypha, as well.
  2. So, the first prong will really be contextualizing materials, primarily in the form of essays on literary form, on biblical and near-east cultures and religion, on Hebrew and Christian interpretive methods, etc. Most of the essays I’m drawing from would be in the Oxford Study Bible, but some will be from other sources.
  3. The second prong will be literary theory: there are several really great resources (such as The Post-Modern Bible and The Post-Modern Bible Reader) that explore how post-modern literary theory has been applied to biblical texts.  We won’t use such readings with every text, but I’m planning on using Robert Warrior’s “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” with a short bit from Joshua, Mieke Bal’s “Lots of Writing” with Esther, Terry Eagleton’s “J.L. Austin and the Book of Jonah,” and Hillis Miller’s “Parables in the Gospels and in Literature.”
  4. The third prong will be literary adaptations: for most texts, we’ll engage with several short literary or artistic adaptations of the texts. Limiting myself to adaptations rather than simply allusion makes it much easier to choose which texts we’ll be reading.  For the Creation and Fall, for example, we’ll read short selections from Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. We’ll read Wyatt’s Penintential Psalms as the bridge between our David section and the Psalms.  We’ll listen to Handel’s Messiah when we get to Isaiah, and look at Renaissance art when we deal with Judith (why were 16th/17th century artists obsessed with the beheading of Holofernes?).  We’ll read The Second Shepherd’s Play when we do the Nativity from Luke, and watch The Passion of the Christ when we get to the Crucifixion.The assignment that goes with this part of the course is where I get most excited: I’m imagining a five-minute student presentation on a piece of art–a song, a statue, a painting–that was inspired by or adapts the text we’re reading for the day. A good friend got me started thinking of all the different songs I could suggest to students: Metallica’s “Creeping Death” for Exodus, Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” for the Gospels, The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” for Ecclesiastes, etc.