Educational Philosophy ELA English Language Arts Learning Literature Reading

CRY HAVOC AND LET SLIP THE FOG OF LORE: SparkNotes butchers William the Poet

You see them in the back of the room. The blue and white books furtively held by nervous hands.  For a student holding a book that says “No Fear” they seem awfully scared about their ability to understand. Students turn to SparkNotes and other “cheat sheet” services like a drowning swimmer discards pride for the sake of an orange life preserver. Fear of a low F throws pride aside in moments of desperation.


Teachers hate SparkNotes and other similar services: Pinkmonkey, Cliffnotes, Shmoop (I love how they tell students most of their writing team are made up of PhD students from Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkeley) and my new favorite LitCharts (If you haven’t seen a PDF of a LitChart, you should: they make pretty amazing study guides) for several valid reasons:

  • SparkNotes et. al. (I will use the term SparkNotes for the rest of the essay to stand in place of all similar services) are lazy and we know the value of difficulty and the development of a work ethic
  • SparkNotes give students a reason to avoid literature or the primary source. They take away an opportunity for a student to interact in a genuine way with art.
  • SparkNotes can ruin the end of a story. (yes there is a wrong way and right way to use SparkNotes)
  • SparkNotes can waylay a student into thinking they understand something when they obviously don’t.
  • SparkNotes are HORRIBLE at identifying crucial quotes- to me this is a quick confirmation that they don’t really care about a student UNDERSTANDING the work of literature.
  • And finally SparkNotes remind teachers of the very worst in lazy attempts to steal a decent grade like in this movie clip below:

I constantly tell students that SparkNotes and others only care about page views and money, not helping students. Of course when a student is desperate my rational explanations probably sound like the teachers from the Peanuts Cartoon:

Now, to be honest, there have been a few times that I’ve encouraged a student to look at SparkNotes or Litcharts. Sometimes I throw them the suggestion when I see that the only other alternative is for the student to drown in complete ignorance. There a valid reasons for a struggling student to turn to something as basic as SparkNotes to help them through a difficult passage, scene or monologue, or even just to provide a framework for studying. There are times in our life when we didn’t do what we are suppose to do, and we need a quick catching-up so that we don’t appear to be a complete lazy fool.  Who hasn’t heard a co-worker whisper, “Hey what did I miss in the first five minutes of the staff development meeting, department meeting, WASC meeting etc…?”

But to me the biggest problem with SparkNotes is that if we are going to have a large discussion at the end of a work or an essay question as a final assessment then SparkNotes takes on the role of Iago at the end of Othello.

It cruelly betrays the student into believing they understand what is going on when tragically the student is completely undone by this treachery.

Let’s look at the ending of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

ANTONY. This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man!”
OCTAVIUS. According to his virtue let us use him
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie,
Most like a soldier, ordered honorably.
So call the field to rest, and let’s away,
To part the glories of this happy day.”

Let’s see what SparkNotes has to say about the ending: “Antony speaks over the body, stating that Brutus was the noblest Roman of all. Octavius adds that they should bury him in the most honorable way and orders the body to be taken to his tent. The men depart to celebrate their victory.” The analysis section lends a bit of a historical aftermath, but fails to address the crucial question that I am left with at the end of this play…

Why did Shakespeare BUTCHER the end of the play?

Now I don’t know about you, but I recognize bathos when I see it. Shakespeare completely butchers the end of this play. The play clearly should have ended when Antony says “This was a man!” That’s a great line. Everyone knows you leave the room on a strong note. Instead Octavius ends the play like a child with his silly rhymed couplet “let’s away… happy day.” What the heck Mr. Shakespeare, that ending is worse than most of Robert Heinlein’s novels.

Or is it?

Shakespeare wrote the play around 1599 towards the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Considering the politically tumultuous years of the Queen’s “Privy Council” in the 1590s and the Queen’s age you can easily see that the Elizabethan English were rightly concerned that the queen’s death would be like a giant tide pulling back from the shores of England. What potentially ominous and unknown force might wash over England as her replacement?  Additionally, her refusal to name a successor added to this angst.  England had to not only worry about her successor, but they had to worry about everyone’s reaction to her successor. This worry became reality almost immediately upon James taking the Crown, (see the Bye Plot and the Main Plot) and then followed a few years later by the well-known 1605 Gun Powder Plot.

One of the cool effects of Shakespeare’s historical plays is that the audience knows what happened before the play and afterward. Shakespeare’s audience knows that Julius Caesar already dealt with Pompey and who would rule Rome before the play even starts. They see the struggle between benevolent dictatorship and messy democracy during the play.  They know of that struggle, in Elizabethan England, by experience.  Shakespeare’s audience sees the contrast between Antony’s rhetorical brilliance his “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” contrasted with Octavius’ saber rattling clichés before the final battle. His audience knows that Antony has little respect for Lepidus, but will use Lepidus to his own end just as he will try and use Octavius. They also know that eventually Octavius will rise to power, become an effective leader, and put an end to Antony’s quest for power.

When Shakespeare’s audience sees Octavius deliver these pathetic final lines with the powerful lines of Antony still ringing in their ears the idea of succession, power, and the impending storm all loom over the stage. But Shakespeare’s knowledge of the eventual King James (some say he met James prior to 1660) a king who rose to power at a too-early age, like Octavius, is evident in this clash of Octavius’ and Antony’s final statements about Brutus. This “bathos” is Shakespeare making the play not about the truth or effectiveness of one man’s appraisal of another’s worth, but this clash of quotes is about the very nature of leadership and the struggle between two potential endings. With this ending Shakespeare is sharing a bit of dramatic irony with his audience a knowing wink that while the stakes are high he thinks it will hopefully turn out for the best and if not they are in for quite a show.

Now perhaps the writer of the SparkNotes summary wanted to write a more detailed summary, but was held back by company policy, an over-eager editor, or simply the expectations of their audience, but my test, my discussion, my class objectives will have nothing simple at stake.

We teach literature to grapple with humanity, the soul, and the gray areas of our life. No pithy summary or bumper sticker quote, or outline is going to help my students become better human beings. But struggling with the ending of a complex play, daring to ask questions and challenge the decisions that Shakespeare made just might shape them into something greater then what they have. The play is not the thing, but the readiness to face the difficulty of the play is where the real understanding of Shakespeare begins.

If you made it this far, I’m going to reward you with two links:

The first is one of my favorite Onion comedy pieces that beautifully satirizes SparkNotes.

The second link is a great YouTube link to a now defunct show called “Decisive Battles” this episode deals with Caesar vs. Pompey just before the play starts and I like to show it to my class before we start the play.

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