“Excuse me?” I said. “Could you say that again?”
The seventeen-year-old high-school-senior son of my best friend sighed.
“What would have happened if Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father and married his mother?” said Andrew.
“Your English teacher gave you that as an essay exam?”
“Right, and I just don’t understand how I’m supposed to answer that question,” he said.
“You see why I told him to call you?” said my best friend Rebecca, on the extension. “You’re the Shakespeare expert, not me.”
“That’s your essay-exam question?” I said.
“Right,” said her son. “And it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Did you read the play?”
“We read it, discussed it, and saw the movie.”
“Then you know Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle Claudius in Act 1, Scene 1.”
“Of course, I know that,” said Andrew. “He doesn’t kill him till the end of the play.”
“Then your answer is, ‘If Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father, we’d have no play’.”
On the extension, my friend started laughing. She said she was going to leave the remainder of the conversation to us and hung up.
Her son was not laughing.
He was sincerely distressed.
“I can’t write, ‘there’d be no play’,” he said. “I’ll get an F.”
“You can write whatever you want,” I said, “because it’s such a stupid question that even people who’ve never read the play can answer it any way they want to and still get an A. Because there will be no wrong answers.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
“Hamlet is interesting because we want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle after the ghost of his father tells him that his Uncle Claudius murdered him and married Hamlet’s mother to become King himself,” I told my friend’s son. “We want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he acts guilty seeing a re-enactment of the actual murder in a play written by Hamlet to ‘catch the conscience of the King’. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he catches his Uncle alone at his prayers. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he finds a letter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instructing the King of England to kill Hamlet for Claudius so that Hamlet, who is the heir-apparent, cannot ever become King of Denmark. Why, in fact, Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius until the very last act of the play and then only after Claudius accidentally kills Hamlet’s mother when she drinks the poison intended for Hamlet, and Laertes, who’s challenged Hamlet to a sword-fight, tells Hamlet that he’s been poisoned with the tip of Laertes’ sword by Claudius’ order.”
“So, I was right,” said Andrew, “it is a stupid question.”
It’s more than a stupid question for a literature class.
It’s the typical inane “What-If School of Life” question.
What if the dog hadn’t stopped to take a nap while he was racing the hare? What if Julius Caesar hadn’t been killed by the Senators? What if Cleopatra hadn’t deserted Marc Antony and he’d won the last of the Roman Civil Wars? What if the British had won the Revolutionary War? What if the South had won our own Civil War? What if Kennedy had not been assassinated? What if Helen Keller had not caught the disease that made her deaf, dumb, and blind?
All of these questions are totally pointless. Because, as we know, these things did happen, and it is more important to understand why they did happen than to discuss some alternative history or fantasy story that did not occur.
Still, it amazes me the number of people who constantly do this. Not just literature teachers who don’t know anything about analyzing literature, or students who haven’t read the assigned literature but want to talk a lot so they’ll get a good grade. Not just historians or supposed history buffs, either.
Reporters and talk-show hosts do it: What if country singer Dolly Parton hadn’t grown up poor? What if serial killer Ted Bundy hadn’t escaped twice and had been caught sooner? What if FEMA had sent money and trailers to the victims of Hurricane Katrina sooner? What if SuperStorm Sandy had missed New Jersey completely?
Sports announcers do it: What if the receiver had caught the quarterback’s pass? What if the quarterback’s pass hadn’t been intercepted? What if the basketball player had made that last-minute 3-point-basket and won the game? What if the game hadn’t gone into overtime? What if professional cyclist Lance Armstrong’s teammates had never revealed that he illegally doped while winning all those Tour de France races?
In fact, virtually everyone who has nothing important to say about what did, indeed, happen, does it. Sometimes, I think they do it just to hear themselves talk. The problem is, they’re not saying anything interesting.
Mainly because, whether in literature or history or another event in life, those things did happen. So why do they want to discuss fantasy topics when the actual events are so much more pertinent?
I honestly do not know.
My friend Rebecca and I were once teaching Literature for a Saturday Classics Program at a well known and respected University where adult students who had dropped out of college when they were younger did intensive coursework all day long every Saturday for two-three years to finish their college degrees. The literature component was designed so that professors from different fields taught the same work each week from their own perspectives and backgrounds. An anthropology professor discussed the work during the first class of the day, a sociology professor during the next class, a psychology professor during the third class, Rebecca and I during the fourth and fifth classes – as the literature professors.
We thought it was an intriguing approach, though Rebecca and I combined our 2 two-hour sessions into 1 four-hour afternoon session since we were both literature professors and wanted the students to lead the discussions themselves. It’s the only way we had ever thought of to ensure that students would actually read the work: make the students themselves lead the discussion for the entire period at least once during the quarter, and grade the rest of the class on their participation in the discussion every single time.
No essays. Just discussion. On the assigned topic. We did it with our college students at our respective universities, who were only 18-22-years-old. We could certainly do the same thing with adult students who, being more mature and having more life experience, would, theoretically, bring even more insight into the literature.
We thought the entire approach to the Classics Program was unique, and it worked well.
Until we got to King Lear.
The first question the student Discussion Leaders asked when they got to our literary analysis component of the program that week was this one: “What if King Lear hadn’t divided his kingdom in Act 1 Scene 1 and told his three daughters that he’d give the largest part of the kingdom to the daughter who said she loved him the most?”
Rebecca, with wide eyes, glanced over at me just a moment before I interrupted the Leaders.
“And what if Shakespeare had a sister who’d actually written the plays?” I said.
The students stared at me, obviously confused.
“That’s an example of how irrelevant your question is because King Lear does divide his kingdom,” I said. “Go on to your next question.”
The Leaders huddled together, whispering, shuffling their papers, flipping through the pages of the play. The rest of the class moved restlessly.
“Go on to your next question,” I said. “Any question. From any part of the play. You don’t have to start with the beginning.”
After several more minutes of whispering and hesitation, one of the Discussion Leaders finally spoke up.
“What if King Lear’s daughter Cordelia hadn’t died?”
“She does die,” I said. “Go on to a legitimate question.”
“What if Cordelia had said she loved her father the way he wanted her to?” said the other leader.
“She doesn’t,” I said. “What are you guys doing? You’ve already been discussing King Lear all day. Talk about anything that hasn’t been answered to your satisfaction so far.”
Everyone in the class suddenly became obsessed with their copies of the play, turning pages, apparently taking notes, silent. Silent. Silent. Rebecca and I looked at each other. We both instantly and intuitively knew what was wrong.
“How many of you have not read King Lear ?” I said, and, to our dismay and horror, every hand in the class eventually went up.
“What have you been discussing for the last six hours today?” said Rebecca.
“In Don’s [the anthropologist’s] class, we spent the first hour going around the room telling how our week went…”
“No, we do that every week.”
“And the second hour of Don’s class?”
“We talk about how our classes are going.”
“What about in Lowell’s [the sociology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.
“We talk about current events.”
“But this is the Classics Program,” I said. “You’re supposed to be discussing the assigned literature from different perspectives.”
“What do you discuss in Allen’s [the psychology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.
“How we feel about school,” said one of the students. “As adults.”
“And how we felt about college when we were younger and why we never completed our degrees…”
You get the picture.
I told them to start reading King Lear. I didn’t raise my voice, but my displeasure was clear. While they read, Rebecca and I redid the syllabus for our part of the Classics Program, for the remainder of the quarter. They would be discussing King Lear next week. The week following that, we would divide the class period in half, with two hours about one work, and two hours about the other, so that they would remain on schedule with the other teachers and the assigned literature in the program. When we passed out the revised syllabus, the students looked glum.
As soon as we dismissed class that day, all the students went straight to Don, Lowell, and Allen: To complain that we were “forcing” them to read King Lear.
Don, who had originally designed the program, called me and Rebecca in, protesting our approach. We politely but firmly protested his “What-If” approach as unprofessional, un-academic, and unacceptable. Don insisted that we let the students discuss whatever they wanted to discuss.
We offered our immediate resignations.
Don, Lowell, and Allen were all horrified. They wanted us to let the students discuss anything they wanted — except the literature, apparently, but they didn’t want us to resign. Rebecca and I insisted that they could teach the literature themselves since they were going to permit the students to discuss everything but the literature in question. That was when we learned that none of the other three professors had read the literature. Any of it. All quarter long.
And that, plain and simple, was the reason they constantly asked the students “What-If” questions that didn’t have anything to do with what had occurred in the literature, or asked them about things that had to do with their personal lives or with world events every week.
Though the students had protested when Rebecca and I changed the syllabus, they discovered that they liked King Lear after they read it. They wanted to discuss the play itself and the characters’ motivations. Same thing happened when we got to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The rest of the quarter, the students began insisting that Don, Lowell, and Allen discuss the literature from the anthropological, sociological, and psychological perspectives — as the Classics Program had been designed. Don, Lowell, and Allen were very unhappy.
The students, however, thrived. They became excited about the works they were reading. They understood why the Classics had interested people for so many centuries. They liked literature, many of them for the first time in their lives. Quite a few of them even switched their majors. To Literature.
And what happened to Rebecca’s son Andrew with his essay-exam question about Hamlet ?
He wrote an essay on his interpretation of why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father informed Hamlet of Claudius’ murder in order to become King.
Andrew’s teacher was so impressed that she read his essay aloud to the rest of the class, gave him an A+/100%, and re-assigned it to the rest of the class, asking them to come up with their own interpretations — supported by the play, of course — about why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle upon learning the truth of his father’s murder.
Andrew was happy and proud. The teacher never gave that kind of assignment again. The students were annoyed at first: they had to write a second essay, and some of them, no doubt, had not read the play – only watched the film. But Andrew reported that the same thing happened in his class that had occurred in the Classics Program: the students began to like the literature, to discuss it heatedly and in an informed manner, and to continue their discussions during lunch and after school.
Now that’s the kind of intellectual discussions that I find fascinating.
No matter the topic.
Not the What-If-This-Had-Never-Happened kind of discussion.
Why talk about those things when the “why did this, in fact, happen, and what were the consequences of its happening?” talks are more intriguing?
As the narrator says in the film version of Jane Austen’s classic Mansfield Park, “It could have all turned out differently, I suppose, but it didn’t.”
updated August 2017