Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Comic Contract: Esther and The Comedy of Errors

The Frisch Parents Association is sponsoring a production of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors to be performed at Frisch on March 4 at the school. Since Purim has just passed and I can never read the megillah without thinking that it sounds like a court drama and a comedy, I thought I'd create the following interdisciplinary lesson on Esther and Shakespeare's play.

The Comedy

The comedy originated in ancient Greece, with Aristophanes (448-380 BCE) being one of the first great comedic playwrights. His comedies, which fall under the category of Old Comedy, focus on political satire and make great use of sexual and scatological innuendo. New Comedy, which lasted through the reign of the Macedonian leaders, until about 260 BCE, focused on comedy of situation, often referred to as farce, and comedy of manners, comedy that relies on a particular set of societal manners that are being thwarted or overturned. Menander is a great comedic playwright of New Comedy. 

Esther is a brilliant satire of Persian court life even as it employs expertly comedy of situation and exhibits characteristics of the comedy of manners. Here is Aristotle on Persian court life, as he describes it to his pupil, the famous Alexander the Great, who went on to conquer Darius III, the last of the Achaemenid kings, the family of rulers from which Achashverosh hailed:

One can sense that Achashverosh is being mocked in Esther; his rule is constantly being challenged and subverted. No sooner does he kill his wife for insubordination and choose a new one than Haman, the courtier he then empowers, threatens the life of Achashverosh's new queen. Achashverosh's courtiers convince him to pass a law that states all women should accede to their husband's commands, while we scratch our heads and wonder how such a law could possibly be enforced. Our attention is soon diverted by other intrigues that then move the story's action to the conclusion in which Achashverosh seems to do nothing but accede to a woman's wishes. This is political satire, comedy of situation and comedy of manners on a par with any master playwright's.

Let's continue to analyze comedy by taking a look at The Comedy of Errors. Here is a brief synopsis of the play:

Comedic Tropes

Following is a brief synopsis of the conventions of comedy, ones that Shakespeare mastered and employed:

As we see in the video, Shakespeare learned from Plautus, the great Roman playwright, who in one of his plays, also has a set of twins cause a case of mistaken identity. Shakespeare intensifies the farcical outcome of the trope of mistaken identity by doubling the sets of twins. In The Comedy of Errors, not only are the main characters, the Antipholuses, twins, but their servants, the Dromios, are twins as well.

Esther as well makes great use of the tropes that the ancient Greeks and Romans and then Shakespeare utilized in comedy.

Stock characters:

The buffoonish king, the cunning villain, the damsel in distress, the wise and true adviser: they all appear in Esther. The wonder for the Jews is that the latter two are part of our nation.

Interfering servants:

Tragedy rests on the fact that the tragic hero falls from his high position. Our attention is never on anyone but the hero as we watch a tragedy. Comedy, on the other hand, allows us to see how the other half lives. Though it's clear in comedy that a ruler controls the land and its laws, we are given a humorous view of who is "really in charge." Think of all the times in Esther when a servant, attendant -- or non-Persian queen! -- is the one who makes the suggestion that then moves the story to its next phase. In Shoshanat Yaakov, which we sing after each reading of the megillah, we end by praising Charvona, the servant we remember as good. That's an astounding shout out, when we consider the might of the Persian empire and the role that the Persian king played on the world stage at the time, but it makes perfect sense when we think of the genre of comedy.

Mistaken identities and intrigue:

Obviously mistaken identities are fun and cause a lot of confusion and laughter. They do so in Esther as well: we laugh at Haman when he thinks the king's request to suggest ways Haman would honor a person means Achashverosh wants to honor him. Intrigue also creates part of the political satire in Esther. Mordechai happens to be at the king's gate when Bigtan and Teresh plan to do mischief to the king, and of course the intrigue of who is threatening the king's new wife is the climax of the story.

And it is here, at the level of this intrigue in Esther, that we begin to see the seriousness of Esther and its meaning for us as Jews. Mordechai is the faithful servant, but he is not a figure of fun. He is in deadly earnest as he waits for news not only of his kin but of his people, and, as Harold Fisch points out, he will sit in ashes and sackcloth against the backdrop of the lush and luxurious Persian court, not to be mocked or beaten, but because he will do anything to save his people. His faithfulness to a higher king than the Persian one inspires his niece to find the courage to end her passive acceptance of her fate, to stop being a kind of servant in the Persian court and instead to assert her will so that her people will be saved (8-14).

Fisch also points out that Esther's modesty and dignity as the comedic beauty pageant gets under way only serve to heighten our sense of the ridiculousness of the Persian court (Ibid.). Therefore, even though Esther is at first a passive vessel which Fate tosses about at the beginning of the story, we immediately see in her the qualities of her uncle's home. Those qualities enable her to find the inner fortitude to perform the task that Life asks of her, and it is those qualities that we as Jews prize, a sense of hatznea lekhet and an unwavering commitment to our faith and our people.

It is also on the level of identity that Esther and The Comedy of Errors can be compared and contrasted. Shakespeare's comedy makes great use of the motif of mistaken identity, wringing out of it plenty of humorous moments, but the play also asks us basic questions about what it means to be human: when we are dislocated from our place and from our families, when we are not known in the marketplace and in our homes, what do we make of ourselves? The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, demonstrates that not knowing oneself and feeling exiled from one's place in the world can lead to madness:

Dromio of Syracuse to Antipholus of Syracuse (his rightful master):

Do you know me, sir? am I Dromio? am I your man? am I myself? (II.ii.)

Jews know all too well what it's like to be dislocated from place, and Esther, a book whose setting is the Diaspora, takes on so many of the complex issues of what it means to be a nation functioning in an exilic world. Esther at first is told to hide her very identity, as Antipholus is instructed to do when he reaches Ephesus. Esther's and Antipholus' lives, in fact, depend on their not revealing their identities. In order to survive, they must hide their true selves. However, doing so is not a tolerable situation. The need to be honest about who one is seems to be a basic one shared by all humans. The Comedy of Errors ends with familial, social, economic and political order being restored when the identities of the two sets of twins is revealed.

Esther ends as well with the Jewess not only being able to state who she really is but with the power to instate her uncle over Haman's house. She remains queen, and Mordechai becomes second in command to the king. Esther, then, seems to prove there will be no disaster if Jews assert their peoplehood. In light of Jewish history, that statement seems facile and callous, however, so perhaps the more proper thing to say is that we would not be here today as Jews without the constant commitment we made as a people to be true to our identities and not be cowed into submission by any external force.

The Comic Contract

A final point about comedies that can be used to assess their endings and the finale of Esther: comedies end with the comic contract's having been fulfilled. What is the comic contract?

Rules are important in comedy mostly because they tend to get broken (this is true in Esther as well). Unlike tragedies in which the breaking of rules leads to whole-scale ruination, comedy has us traipse about in a land of "unruliness" only to return to the safe harbor of law and order. Consider in The Comedy of Errors how many characters enter the wrong door and cause the chaos they do; in tragedy, these actions cause disaster as Oedipus in the wrong bedroom proves. In comedy, Oedipus' action would turn farcical, would be laughed at and resolved.

The rules in comedy get established right away, so we know exactly what to expect the characters will be fighting against. Usually the rules are laid down by the reigning monarch, a king or duke who brooks no argument and whose will is supreme, but through the course of the comedy, through all the challenges to and flouting of the rules, the ruler comes to see that he must temper Law with Compassion, Judgment with Mercy, and doing so becomes part of the Comic Contract. Thus, the Comic Contract is the pact the comedy makes with the audience that familial, social, economic and political order will be restored in a compassionate manner. Think of what Puck says at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

if you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck

If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends. (V.i)

Or, to return to the work we've been analyzing, think of the Dromios at the end of The Comedy of Errors. They argue as to who should enter a room (!) first.

Dromio Ephesus: Will you walk in to see their gossiping?
Dromio Syracuse: Not I, sir; you are my elder.
Dromio E.: That's a question: how shall we try it?
Dromio S: We will draw cuts for the senior: till then, lead thou first.
Dromio E.: Nay, then thus:
We came into the world like brother and brother:
And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another. (V.i)

Order is restored, but not only order. Brotherly love, philanthropy, a going beyond the letter of the law is at the heart of the comedy, and it is a love that Shakespeare extends to his audience as well. Puck breaks down the wall between character and audience by including us under the umbrella of order and fraternal love the characters are enjoying. However, one might consider, since Shakespeare is Shakespeare and never completely does what is expected of him, that the characters who offer us the fulfillment of the comic contract are servants who have proven to be the least reliable, the most "unruly" figures in the play.

In Esther there seems to be a dual restoration of order, and this doubling becomes an important lesson for the Jews in Diaspora. One restoration is by Jews for Jews: Esther and Mordechai make Purim an official holiday that Jews for all time must keep (9:27-31), so Jews are bound by the Law and Lawgiver who has ultimate sway over us, but a second order is restored in Chapter 10, when the Law of the Land is asserted by Achashverosh's once again levying a tax.

However, the Comic Contract wouldn't be complete without the extension of brotherly love to the audience, and since the audience of Esther is Jewish, the joining of hands is primarily a Jewish one: a Jew is second-in-command to the king, a Jew who has been a loyal servant to both his earthly and spiritual rulers and and one who will seek peace for his dislocated and vulnerable people.

א  וַיָּשֶׂם הַמֶּלֶךְ אחשרש (אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ) מַס עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאִיֵּי הַיָּם.1 And the king Ahasuerus laid a tribute upon the land, and upon the isles of the sea.
ב  וְכָל-מַעֲשֵׂה תָקְפּוֹ, וּגְבוּרָתוֹ, וּפָרָשַׁת גְּדֻלַּת מָרְדֳּכַי, אֲשֶׁר גִּדְּלוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ--הֲלוֹא-הֵם כְּתוּבִים, עַל-סֵפֶר דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים, לְמַלְכֵי, מָדַי וּפָרָס.2 And all the acts of his power and of his might, and the full account of the greatness of Mordecai, how the king advanced him, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia?
ג  כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי, מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיו--דֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ, וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָל-זַרְעוֹ.  3 For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed.

Since Esther, as much as it resembles a play, is still a story related by a narrator, we have no cause to question the writer's credibility, as we do with the characters who speak at the end of two of Shakespeare's plays. However, we might consider the entire motion of the story of Esther, the incredible twists and turns, the unexpected rise and fall of many of the characters. Those rises and falls remind us to be wary in the Diaspora and make us understand one reason the Talmud gives for our not reciting Hallel on Purim: Because we are still servants of Achashverosh (Megillah 14a). Are the Jews the saviors, the heroes, the good guys, or are we the foolish servants, slaves to the whims of a mercurial master?

Purim is the day we contemplate the quirks of Fate, the twin elements of good and evil that are inextricably linked and that are an inextricable part of life; the day we are "lo yodea," we don't know; the day we slip into and out of different identities; and the day that despite all that, we continue to be Jews, to engage in the mitzvoth of the holiday, in which kinship and brotherhood -- mishloach manot ish l're'ehu v'matanot l'evyonim -- are first and foremost in our minds. There is no day in the Jewish calendar more joyous, more comedic in feel than Purim. I hope against the backdrop of comedy and Shakespeare's use of it you've come to appreciate what we might be enacting every year in the little comedy we stage for ourselves on 14 Adar.

Fisch, Harold. Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poetics and Interpretation. Indiana University Press, 1990.

Presentation PowerPoint 

Additional Resources

1) See Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky's great presentation on Purim as satire:

Purim as Satire

2) Materials for teaching The Comedy of Errors:

Curriculum for _The Comedy of Errors_

3) The Comedy of Errors and Rhyme:


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fate and Free Will and Esther's Choices

Here's an integration unit I created on Megillat Esther, one that I usually present to high school students but which I've adapted for elementary school students as well. Stay tuned for my new one this year, on the comic contract.

Have a happy Purim!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Sophomore Renaissance Project Continues

The sophomores keep marveling at how much people of the Renaissance accomplished -- though one student did comment that we're only focusing on the super-achievers of the age. Still, the class seemed down about our own time, thinking we're not as inventive and accomplished as our predecessors. On our Facebook group, then, I posted the following article, Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain, and then followed up with this assignment:

Who says the Renaissance is over and there's nothing more to explore? Obama is funding research into mapping the human brain. 

Now it's your turn: Find me an article about a new place to explore, a new Renaissance-like invention being worked on, or any other task someone is undertaking that sounds Renaissance-like. Post your article and give a brief summary of it. Don't speak in text. Sound like a person!

So now I've added more non-fiction reading to our month-long exploration of the Renaissance, Shakespeare's sonnets and The Merchant of Venice, and students are not only creating PowerPoints and ShowMe's and posting on wikis, but are commenting on Facebook as well!

See The Sophomore Renaissance Project for more on our multi-media exploration of the time period.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Students Write AP English Language Questions

Challenge: How Do I Get Students to Remember the Types of Essays on the AP English Language Exam?

The Plan

Students never remember the three types of essay questions on the AP English Language exam until the day before the test (this phenomenon is akin to the one in AP Art History where the students need to review what's considered non-Western art until the day of the exam).

This year, my efforts to improve my test prep procedures are meeting my desire to create a student-centered classroom.

Today the last chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are due, and this month students in my AP English Language class are working on a GoogleDocs PowerPoint for Black History Month. (The class curriculum covers American Literature and rhetoric for the AP English Language exam). I've also just finished commenting on outlines for student term papers. As I review in class each student's outline with him/her, I'm going to ask students to finish their PowerPoints and then use the information on Huck Finn and the class PowerPoint to create an example of each one of the three AP English Language essay questions.

Here's the class PowerPoint students can tap into. As you can see, students have already begun uploading information. I love the people they've chosen to discuss!

Students can look at sample essay questions to gain a sense of what they have to write:

Sample AP English Language Essay Prompts

2012 Free Response Questions

Once the students write the questions, I'm going choose the best ones and use those as practice essay exams for the entire class, so student-centered learning becomes student-created course content.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Black History Month

Since Obama has been president (or more relevantly, since the Disney Channel has started creating strong roles for blacks), I've polled my students each year about the state of race in America. I teach in an all-white, Jewish high school, but even though they don't interact closely with a black community, I'm always impressed that my students understand that race relations is a complex issue and that there still isn't full equality in America, despite the country's grandiose promises of liberty for all. I hope this awareness causes them to work to right that awful wrong. Following are my lessons that aim to show students the importance of America's continued struggle to end racism.

I'm going to highlight two classes where discussion of racism is a big part of the course as a whole and where specific units in the syllabi coincide perfectly with Black History Month.

Hot Topics

Hot Topics is a senior elective where, during the Fall Semester, we study medical ethics and, during the Spring semester, just in time for Black History Month, racism.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Over winter vacation, students tackled the first eight chapters of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a book that weaves together the two topics of the year. Now, students are working on the book, reading it, answering questions about different chapters and discussing how it connects with what we're doing in class. My all-white, Jewish students were surprised to discover that segregation even extended to hospitals and medical treatment.

The Evils of Racism and Stereotyping

We began Spring semester with a debate about whether natural morality exists and then asked ourselves how we could set up a just society with a compass that seemed to change with time. We then read the following articles:

What is Evil and Why Do People Tolerate It?

How to Withstand a Hurricane of Hate

Now we're studying "The Whipping" by Marita Bonner, a painful and powerful story written during the Harlem Renaissance and chronicling the racism and stereotyping blacks encountered during the Great Migration. The story will be a perfect springboard for watching the movie Crash (2005), a movie set in Los Angeles and tackling all the thorny problems of racism, including the animosity and distrust that existed between the LAPD and the black community.

Here's a New York magazine review of the film: Review of Crash. Warning: The film is rated R.

Humor about Race

I can't do anything in my classes without also trying to make the kids laugh. Since stereotyping is one main issue Crash grapples with, we watch the following funny clips that joke about racism. The first is a campy commercial by Judd Apatow:

Of course, this classic satire of stereotyping is always a hit with students (I never get tired of watching it, either!):

The Jewish Debate Over Slavery

Since I work in a Jewish day school, the students and I will also discuss the debate over slavery that occurred in the American Jewish community, a debate that seems especially relevant with the movie Lincoln in theaters and showing Oscar promise:

Jewish Views of Slavery and Secession

The Rabbi Who Seceded from the South

American Literature

The Jewish debate over slavery also fits in well in my American literature class, which of course includes a unit on racism, one we happen to be embarking on just in time for Black History Month and just in time to see Lincoln. In fact, yesterday we planned a class trip to see the film, and because the class has already watched Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible and because they're a curious and thoughtful bunch, they're really excited to see the movie.

We've begun analyzing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with its attendant discussions of the use of the 'n' word. Here's an article, with a clip, about that debate:

I also plan to give my students these film reviews of Lincoln and the other American-centered movies in the running for Oscars this year:

In preparation for the movie, we've already discussed the benefits of seeing films that remind us anew of the scourge that was slavery.

More Humor about Race

Fortunately, the super-talented and bi-racial comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele can help me out with contemporary humor about race. The comedians, whom most of the students are familiar with and love, make the students connect more closely with the issue:

Not For Sale

I always like to show my students that there are real-world applications to their learning. Here's an organization that my school's fashion show may highlight this year. Our fashion show theme this year is "Who's the Fairest of Them All?" and we want to use the show to raise awareness and funds for fair trade practices and to help end the unfair "trading" of humans, slavery. Here's an organization we're considering working with:

(To find out more about our fair trade fashion show, click here: Who's the Fairest of Them All?)

Additional Resources for Black History Month

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Sophomore Renaissance Project

In order to provide the students with background information on the Renaissance in a way that doesn't infringe on class time excessively and that combines multiple learning opportunities and assessments, I'm having my sophomores undertake the following project. I'll use the information the students gathered for a class "Renaissance fair" on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday.

The Sophomore Renaissance Project

The PowerPoint

Part I. Complete a PowerPoint with a definition of the Renaissance and a profile of two Renaissance personages. Also include a definition of the Elizabethan Renaissance and how it created English pride as well as information about the life and contributions of William Shakespeare.

When was William Shakespeare born? When did he die?
How many plays did he write? What kind of plays were they?
How many poems and what kinds of poems did he write?
What was his theater company called?

Include relevant images for all your slides.

Due Feb. 7

"Words, words, words."

Part II. “Words, words, words.”

As you learned in Part I, Shakespeare contributed over 2,000 words and phrases to the English language. Write ten words and their parts of speech and definitions.

jaded  *
ode *
rant *

Write original sentences for the starred words. We will have a quiz on those words on Feb. 28.

Neologism: new word
Shakespeare was a neologism expert, it would seem. Let’s be Shakespearean and create our own new word. Create a slide with your word and its part of speech and definition (make sure the definition of the word is in the correct part of speech). Include a relevant image.

Due Feb. 13

Foreign Language and ShowMe Get in the Act

Part III. Be a Renaissance man/woman

As you can tell by now, a Renaissance person has a lot of talents, one of them being a facility with languages. Make sure your personages assessment is corrected (this is the assignment where you assessed who the two most important people of the Renaissance were), and then translate it into another language: Hebrew, Spanish or another language you may know. Ask a language teacher for assistance if you need it. Record your personages assessment – in English and another language – on the ShowMe app, placing relevant images in the ShowMe to make your presentation more interesting. Link your ShowMe to your PowerPoint.

Due Feb. 26

Part IV. Renaissance thinking in the modern world

Choose a figure from the last two hundred years whom you feel is a Renaissance person, and explain what multiple talents this person has/had and how this person contributed to the world. Create 3-5 slides on the person, and include relevant and exciting images. 

Due March 6

The Sonnet Paper

During this time, the students and I will be studying Shakespeare's sonnets in class and then the students will have to explicate a sonnet on their own, using literary criticism such as Helen Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. This paper is always challenging for the students, as they've never done serious research before, and Vendler needs to be translated into English for them.  ;)