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Thursday, September 07, 2006

My First Undergraduate Shakespeare Essay: The Mystery is a Result of the Richness

Hieronimo's post below and Simplicius' (Simplicii?) reply got me thinking about my own early efforts to engage with Shakespeare as an undergraduate. For the first time in many, many years, I checked my wayback machine (i.e., the folder on my hard drive marked "College") and found the following, written for a survey class during the first semester of my freshman year. I hope my co-bloggers will offer up some samples of their own early work? I doubt that they will be able to top mine.

The title of the essay really tells you everything you need to know: "The Morality of Falstaff." Here are the first few paragraphs. I promise, in all seriousness: I have not altered a word of it.

Falstaff has always been a favorite character of Shakespeare enthusiaists. His ambiguous motives and sparkling wit have inspired many a heated debate over coffee in smoky cafes. They will also inspire me to write a brilliant essay.

Sir John Falstaff seems to embody immorality. He is a glutton, a lecher, a thief... any shred of goodness that might be in him is smothered under layers of bad qualities. His huge girth is a fitting appearance for such a man - one does not even have hear him speak to realize that his morals may be questionable.

There is something lying behind Falstaff's, and indeed any literary character's immorality; the morals of the author. Shakespeare had something in mind when he created Falstaff. He needed a element of immorality to meld with the elements of Henry IV's royalty and Hotspur's rash honor (I hope) in the well-balanced character of Hal. He picked out some of the worst morals he could think of and combined them in one huge man.

In order to pick out poor morals, an author must have a concept of what good morals are; bad ethics are a reversal of good ones. Shakespeare, in Falstaff, took a set of ethics he thought to be correct, and reversed them. The implication of this is that underneath Falstaff's badness lies Shakespeare's concept of goodness. Does this mean that Falstaff is a moral man? No. It does, however add to the richness of the character.

This richness is the attribute that the Norton editors claim make Falstaff immortal. Although they may use the word "mystery" to explain his longevity; the mystery is a result of the richness.

Shakespeare enthusiasts in smoky cafes?? Fat people are evil?? What was I, high?


I sucked! I would give this a C- if I was feeling generous! To think that I remember that class only for the unending sourness of the graduate student instructor. No wonder he was in such a bad mood. In any case, this just reinforces what H and S have been saying. When we complain about the disintegrating skills of incoming students, we are romanticizing our own past skills, forgetting the huge crowds of disinterested students of which we were often members, and essentially dismissing young writers (I would have dismissed my young self immediately) who probably should not be dismissed. I hereby pledge to refrain from posting snarky comments about student writing. Until next semester.

See all y'all at the smoky cafe for a heated debate over coffee.

  • At 9/07/2006 01:53:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I mean, I just ... I don't ... what ... that ... wow. What can I say? I'm speechless.

    I think my favorite line is: "His huge girth is a fitting appearance for such a man - one does not even have hear him speak to realize that his morals may be questionable." That is some serious weightism, dude.

    Why do you hope so fervently and parenthetically that Hostpur's honor is rash?

    Do you know what grade you actually received?

    You've opened up a serious can of worms here. I may have to go looking for my own horrendous horribility.


  • At 9/07/2006 02:01:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Just wanted to let you know that I'm still enjoying this post... re-read it a couple times, in fact. This is as good as blogging gets.


  • At 9/07/2006 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I love this. And what I love most is that line, "They will also inspire me to write a brilliant essay."

    I did this all the goddamn time in my freshman essays--wrote something that I was aware was sassy and cheeky, like describing Aeneas's journey in an arch, mocking way (I'll have to go dig up that particular example), and for no reason other than that I could. I thought being sassy was a good thing, and to their discredit, most of my freshman year instructors didn't call me on it.

    I'm not sure, actually, *where* I learned that this was inappropriate.


  • At 9/07/2006 02:58:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Yes, the other thing about that line is its ironic self-reflective quality: do you see how cleverly I'm writing about the fact that I'm writing? Always good for a little throat-clearing and space-using. I used that one plenty. And so do my students.

    I await your Aeneas essay with bated breath, Flavia.


  • At 9/07/2006 03:00:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Truewit, I also want to applaud your very, er, creative use of semicolons.


  • At 9/07/2006 05:27:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    This is truly amazing.

    I have the essays from my first undergraduate English class sitting next to me right now, but I can't bring myself to transcribe them just yet--maybe tomorrow. They're nowhere near as entertaining as Truewit's but bad in different ways.

    What's also amazing, Truewit, is that you still have your undergraduate essays in electronic form. In my first three semesters of college, I wrote essays using Wordstar and then moved on to WordPerfect. The Wordstar essays more or less disappeared with my first computer, and the WordPerfect essays disappeared with my 5 1/4" disks. Everything I have therefore is either on paper or has ceased to exist (which might help explain my strong opinions on the importance of paper archiving).

    By the bye, my word verification for this comment: "boneme."


  • At 9/07/2006 05:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    A lurid introduction. Don't make me say this twice. Because I'll deny it.

    "The cloak of darkness, his loveless life. Night! And once again, Gatsby is awake.

    What must he have asked himself on those lonely nights? And what must Fitzgerald have wondered as he created the greatest character in all of American literature?

    This paper will answer those questions. Gatsby himself is beyond caring."


  • At 9/07/2006 06:17:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    S: the essay was barely recoverable. I've been using macs forever, just kind of recopying things over and over from computer to computer (the little keychain drives have changed my life). Everything after these particular paragraphs was gibberish, so I'll never know where I went from here. Which is probably for the best.

    F: eventually, professors started telling me to leave out the jokes. come to think of it, even my dissertation director was begging for a more serious tone. I get it all out here on the blog, so I can be staid elsewhere.

    mms: I only wish I could have come up with something like that! even now, to be honest...


  • At 9/07/2006 06:50:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I still have all my papers in electronic form, but since I wrote them back in the day when you could only have something like 8 characters in a file name, they all have file names like "EL218MAC" and "CO125RFR" and so are pretty hard to decipher.

    Here's a rather embarrassing thing: looking through my old files, I see that for the first couple years of college, I almost never put paper titles--or my name, course number, professor's name--on the top of the first page. Why? It took me a minute to remember. Ah yes, I was creating separate files for my title pages! Delightful. I'm sure it made it look all professional and fancy. Probably used a fancy cursive font too.

    mid-modern: that paragraph rules. The exclamatory "Night!" is my favorite part. This is not Elie Weisel's night.


  • At 9/08/2006 10:42:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    I used to spend hours putting together a neat titlepage for each of my essays, graphics and all. It's a nasty habit, though now it's progressed from making titlepages to designing covers for books that I plan to write some day...


  • At 9/08/2006 12:17:00 PM, Blogger Pantagruelle wrote…

    I've got all of my undergrad essays too. In fact, I transfered them just a couple weeks ago from near obsolete floppy disks (the smaller kind) to my hard drive for posterity. They are all Word 6.0 / 95 files (I guess that dates my undergrad years!) with 8 letter file names too (but each is within its respective course subfolder (Eng101) which makes them easy to decipher). I looked through most of them as I was transfering the files, and, boy, were they bad! I don't know how I got the good grades I got for that crap. I'd only give myself C's or B's if I were marking my work now.

    And, yes, I've even got a few of those title pages left hanging around my hard drive too. I'm actually rather surprised that you guys all did title pages too--I thought that was just a French university thing but that English university students should know better. I always put "no title page" quite high on my list of essay do's and don't's that I give my students. Title pages mean 75-80 extra sheets of paper to schlep around in my backpack!


  • At 9/08/2006 12:50:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I agree with Flavia: hands down, the best line is the brilliant essay line. It's a totally modest line, designed to give Falstaff all the credit for the essay's brilliance, thereby (almost) proving its point from the get go.

    So, how much money would someone have to pay you guys to put together a panel based on your UG papers? And read them unrevised?? Even if we have to wait 10 years til you are all full profs, I would join(your) RSA to see that.


  • At 9/08/2006 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I can't even find a good paragraph to post from mine, because they're just filled with dutifully boring regurgitations of the latest tidbits I'd learned from Saussure, Foucault, Barthes, and Greenblatt.


  • At 9/08/2006 03:40:00 PM, Blogger Pantagruelle wrote…

    Actually, now that I think about it, many of my undergrad papers are still floating around cyberspace. I'd posted most of them to the webpage I'd created in undergrad, which is still online, but which fortunately I'd done anonymously at the time so it doesn't turn up in a google search of my real name. Whew!


  • At 9/13/2006 02:05:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    This is the best blog post ever!

    It is humbling and hilarious to read your early work, Truewit.

    Oh, and like Flavia, I too tried to be a little too self-reflexive and creative in my writing. I think I remember writing about gardens in Wroth and calling for my "analytical spade" to dig deeper. And not even as a college freshman. Ugh. Blush.


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