Body of Evidence

Having looked at the effective selection of evidence in a previous post, I thought it about time I wrote something about the ways we get students to make use of the quotations and other evidence they select in responding to texts.

Madona uses candlelight to locate quotations in increasingly challenging literary texts.

When students who have less control over their analytical writing attempt to use evidence, it can read a little like this:

“Mixed up together like bees in a hive” this shows priestly thinks we should work together more.

What we do about this ‘floundering in the shallow end’ approach to using evidence is so important if our students are to develop a more convincing, analytical and critical voice.

In the past, I’ve produced and seen other English teachers produce lists of phrases which students can use to introduce quotations. My hope, at the time, was that this would help them pretend to embed quotations into sentences. The intention was that this would stop them jarringly dropping quotations at the start of a clumsy, stumbling dribble like the example above. Many moons ago, I shamefully created a PEE Generator which you can see a section of here:

What I’d like to do in the rest of this post will borrow from the methodology used by Jim Carroll (@jcarrollhistory) in this blog about historical explanation writing. Carroll explores how different historians craft historical explanations. His assertion is that the way many history teachers train their students to produce this style of writing is too distant from academic discourse – the writing frames they utilise are overly generic.

In a similar way, I’d like to explore how literary essayists take control of the evidence, shaping it so that it fits neatly into the body of their writing.

To do this, I’ve focused on five extracts of essays on Hamlet, collected by Harold Bloom in his Shakespeare Through the Ages. These extracts can be found at the end of this post. I’ve labelled each one with a source number (A-E) for ease of reference in the remainder of the post. Each of them makes use of direct quotation from versions of the script.

The first thing worth noting, before we even look at these specific sources, is that, compared to a GCSE English Literature response, the essays Bloom selected contain very few direct quotations. This has made me wonder whether, as a result of our obsession with Assessment Objectives and marking rubrics and our attempt to push as many students over a specific threshold of achievement, we have come to fetishise the quotation as a form of evidence. In his 1919 piece Hamlet and His Problems, T.S Eliot includes two quotations – both used to call into question the artistic quality of Shakespeare’s writing.

It is very difficult to find an example in the collection which follows the pattern:

  1. Here’s what I think.
  2. Look at this evidence that proves what I think.
  3. Now read how/why the evidence I’ve chosen proves what I think.

This seems to echo the findings of my not so scientific experiment.

The way the essayists in Bloom’s selection manipulate evidence is mostly very different to the way we train our students to do so at secondary level. It’s certainly a country mile from the model I developed in my PEE Generator.

So, what do these essayists do?

  1. They use quotations to demonstrate their knowledge of key aspects of the play’s narrative, then question and explore what Shakespeare is highlighting in terms of a character’s motivations (Sources A and C).
  2. They thread quotations into a description of the audience’s reaction to the characters. (Source B)
  3. They use longer quotations, hanging outside the prose of the essay, as if to say “Taddaaaa! This proves what I just wrote.” (Sources C, D and E)
  4. They use a string of quotations from the same scenes or sometimes from different parts of the play to support what they’re saying about wider events which support an overarching line of argument rather than an isolated “point.” (Sources B, C and E)

The fundamental commonality between all of these examples is that the quotation falls into the overall line of argument which the writers have in mind. Though it arguably provides students, who are novices in terms of analytical writing, with a structure for an individual paragraph, a substantial concern I have with PEE or its derivatives is that it doesn’t help students to develop a thread through their literary response. Instead, they create isolated clunky chunks which form a less coherent mass.

What we should be doing is teaching students this wider range of ways to utilise evidence through exemplification and modelling, explanation and opportunities for them to practice.

Source A

In the final scene, mortally wounded and having killed Claudius, Hamlet hears the “warlike noise” (5.2.349) of Fortinbras’s approaching army and declares, ”I do prophesy th’ election lights / On Fortinbras; he has my dying voice” (5.2.35556). What could possibly justify Hamlet’s urging Fortinbras’s succession? These words are either spoken ironically or are the stoical observation of someone who knows that even Alexander the Great and Caesar return to dust.

2005—James Shapiro. From A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599

Source B

Shakespeare gives Fortinbras the last word on this, but that word is irony, since Fortinbras represents only the formula of repetition: like father, like son. “The soldier’s music and the rite of war” speak loudly for the dead father, but not for this dead son, who had watched the army of Fortinbras march past to gain its little patch of ground and had mused that: “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument.” The reader’s last word has to be Horatio’s, who more truly than Fortinbras has Hamlet’s dying voice: “and from his mouth whose voice will draw on more,” which only in a minor key means draw more supporters to the election of Fortinbras.

1986—Harold Bloom, “Introduction” from Hamlet (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations)

Source C:

Hamlet himself sees from the first that the Ghost may be an instrument of darkness sent to ensnare his soul, and the doubts which appear in his first words to the Ghost are the best possible reason for not rushing, thoughtlessly, to his revenge:

“Angels and Ministers of grace defend us: Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn’d, Bring with thee ayres from heaven, or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked, or charitable, Thou com’st in such a questionable shape. . . .” (1.4.39–43)

Horatio is more certain that the apparition is infernal and may yet ‘assume some other horrable forme’ to ‘deprive your soveraigntie of reason’ and ‘draw you into madness’ (1.4.72–4).

1987—Graham Bradshaw. “Hamlet and the Art of Grafting,” from Shakespeare’s Scepticism

Source D:

If there is one quality that has characterized, and will characterize, every speech of Gertrude’s in the play, it is the ability to see reality clearly, and to express it. This talent is not lost when turned upon herself:

“O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct.” (III.iv.88–91)

She knows that lust has driven her, that this is her sin, and she admits it. Not that she wishes to linger in the contemplation of her sin. No more, she cries, no more. And then the Ghost appears to Hamlet. The Queen thinks him mad again—as well she might—but she promises Hamlet that she will not betray him—and she does not.

1957—Carolyn Heilbrun . “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother,” from Shakespeare Quarterly

Source E

Finally, Hamlet’s melancholy accounts for two things which seem to be explained by nothing else. The first of these is his apathy or ‘lethargy’. We are bound to consider the evidence which the text supplies of this, though it is usual to ignore it. When Hamlet mentions, as one possible cause of his inaction, his ‘thinking too precisely on the event’, he mentions another, ‘bestial oblivion’; and the thing against which he inveighs in the greater part of that soliloquy (IV. iv.) is not the excess or the misuse of reason (which for him here and always is godlike), but this bestial oblivion or ‘dullness’, this ‘letting all sleep’, this allowing of heaven-sent reason to ‘fust unused’:

“What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.” 26

So, in the soliloquy in II. ii. he accuses himself of being ‘a dull and muddymettled rascal’, who ‘peaks [mopes] like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of his cause’, dully indifferent to his cause.27 So, when the Ghost appears to him the second time, he accuses himself of being tardy and lapsed in time ; and the Ghost speaks of his purpose being almost blunted, and bids him not to forget (cf. ‘oblivion’). And so, what is emphasised in those undramatic but significant speeches of the player-king and of Claudius is the mere dying away of purpose or of love. Surely what all this points to is not a condition of excessive but useless mental activity (indeed there is, in reality, curiously little about that in the text), but rather one of dull, apathetic, brooding gloom, in which Hamlet, so far from analysing his duty, is not thinking of it at all, but for the time literally forgets it.

1904—A . C . Bradley . From Shakespearean Tragedy

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