Thursday, December 14, 2006


So I gave the final exam last night in the Intro to Lit course that I have been teaching this semester. I am very grateful for the 14 students who signed up for the course, because it gave me a chance to teach literature, which I love to do. I enjoy teaching generally, and some of the assignments I have in the composition course I teach are most stimulating, but for sheer continual enjoyment, give me literature.

Anyway, one of the questions that I asked—for the drama portion—was this: Identify five ways in which Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are alike. Identify five ways in which Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are different. The more specific your reference, the more likely your answer will be acceptable. E.g. do not say: “they are both plays.”

What was there about those directions that was so misleading? Some of the answers were . . .well, let’s just say they were interesting. On the off chance that you aren’t quite brushed up on the details of these two plays, I refer you to some sources.
Oedipus Rex is considered to be the greatest extant Greek tragedy. Every time I read the drama, I puzzle over precisely what it was that Oedipus did that had the gods so angry at him and hell-bent on his destruction. Hamlet has been called by some “the greatest drama in the English language.” What always strikes me is the number of bodies littering the stage at the end of the drama.

I have a suspicion that, were you to read the summaries of each of these dramas, you might be able to answer the above final exam question. Herewith are some of the answers my students gave. My comments will be in parentheses—and, please NO, I did not write those comments on their papers. . .I just thought them


1. Arrogance (OK—who is? Both? Just one? If so, where is the comparison?)
2. They both died (They didn’t; only Hamlet dies.)
3. They both talk to themselves (If by “talk to themselves” you mean soliloquy, well, that is a Shakespearean convention, not a Sophoclean one.)
4. Both protagonists are round, dynamic characters. (Well, yeah, that’s what makes them PROTAGONISTS.)
5. Both plays have scenes. (!)
6. They were both written as dramas. (HELLO! Re-read directions, please.)

Some comparisons were very good: both characters are afflicted with
hubris that leads to their downfalls; both have unhealthy relationships with women (that made me smile, as part of the irony of Oedipus is that he unknowingly marries his mother); both kill someone important.


1. Hamlet killed his father, not knowing. (Never mind that one point cannot be a contrast, but perhaps the student was thinking of Oedipus?)
2. Hamlet took his eyes out. (OK, I am pondering this one—glass eyes, perhaps? No? Well, anyway, again Oedipus.)
3. Oedipus just died. (Huh? He didn’t.)
4. Oedipus has far fewer characters. (Well, that’s true—but so?)
5. Hamlet uses comic relief, and Oedipus has ZERO comedy. (I gave credit for this one, but I was very amused at the ZERO remark. Actually, Oedipus is a grim drama.)

Interestingly, the contrast answers were better than the comparison answers. Maybe that’s because it is easier to see how things are different than how they are alike.

Art Linkletter used to have that show—Kids Say the Darnedest Things. Well, my students write the darnedest things!

1 comment:

LauraHinNJ said...

Hmmmm... I teach a remedial reading course at a community college - we spend a whole week just learning to understand and recognize comparison and contrast. So you won't get much sympathy from me on this one.


I gave my final exam tonight and won't have the courage to look at them until the weekend.

It must be something to teach literature. When I was teaching Spanish I couldn't wait until I had *paid my dues* with the beginner's level courses and would be able to teach *the good stuff*.

I like to include a novel in the course I teach now and really enjoy the class discussions and am awed by the insights of some of my students, most of whom would be thought of as non-readers. They do need help with learning how to talk about books and would be flabbergasted with a compare/contrast question without our spending lots of time doing Venn diagrams to illustrate how to approach it.