Below, you’ll find a sampling of prompts that have proven particularly successful. I’ve edited slightly for context, but these are largely warts-and-all. Likewise, this page is very much a work in progress, liable to transform or disappear as I search for better ways of organizing this material.
As you’ll see, most of these assignments are written both to develop particular skills of close-reading, analysis, style or argument and to prepare ideas for a subsequent class discussion. As such, I’ve left in the particular texts to which they refer. (The “Mischievous Reading” prompt, in particular, works best when it makes thematic sense.) I’d love any feedback, revisions, corrections, or experiences you’d like to share.
Allegory and Mischievous Reading
An exercise in misinterpretation.
Wyatt, Tottel, and English Meter
Using EEBO; scansion; editorial intervention.
Paraphrase and Description
Paraphrasing Shakespeare; learning to articulate differences between plays.
Sound and Sense
Close-reading exercise focusing on sonic effects.
Familiar and Unfamiliar
Reckoning with the cultural place of Shakespeare & effects of production.
Imitating Critical Jargon
Thinking about style and substance in critical prose.
A small assignment that I like just because I hope to encourage my students to become real resources for each other.
Paired Assignment: Variations on Someone Else’s Theme
Style, mostly, but also topic sentence/thesis practice.
Paired Assignment: Collecting and Distilling Evidence
Pre-writing, polishing, and attention.
King Lear Close-Reading Exercise
Close-reading exercise that collectively builds an account of Lear’s vocabulary.
A Bestiary of Twain’s Sentences
A short close-reading exercise that produces a wonderful (if idiosyncratic) lexicon of Twain’s stylistic effects.
You have completed a pair of assignments in which you had to be sober, responsible critics. Not this one! For this week, I want you to pick a detail somewhere in the Book I of the Fairie Queene that you can’t get to make sense and come up with the wildest interpretation you can for it. The only catch is that you need (1) to make your claims as specific as you can, in the terms that we’ve been talking about, and (2) to support it with literary evidence of the types we’ve been using (irony, ambiguity, alliteration, diction, enjambment, metrics, etc.). Show us how this detail leads to a more interesting, more powerful, or otherwise better interpretation of the passage.
Don’t bullshit. Scheme. Misconstrue where you want; entangle the untangled; be sneaky, clever, ingenious, misleading, and devious.
In other words, read like Archimago.
First, sign in to Early English Books Online through the Princeton Library’s Articles and Databases website. Using the search tools, find the following book:
Songes and sonettes, written by the right honorable Lorde Henry Haward late Earle of Surrey, and other , [London] : Apud Richardum Tottel. Cum priuilegio ad imprimendum solum, 1557.
Bib name / number: STC (2nd ed.) / 13861
Bib name / number: Case, A.E. Poetical miscellanies, 5(b). /
Physical description: 117,  leaves
Copy from: Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery
This is a book commonly known as Tottel’s Miscellany, one of the first collections of English lyric poetry. Take a little time to flip through the scanned images to see how an early modern reader might have first encountered these poems. This particular copy has its full-text digitized, as well.
Find one of the assigned Wyatt poems and compare it to your edition. (“Whoso list to hunt” is not included.) Then write a paragraph meditating on the differences: how do they change the poem? What do you think the miscellany editor is up to? If you’re stuck, try scanning both versions to see how the meter changes.
First, choose 3-5 lines that seem particularly archaic, knotty, or otherwise difficult from Titus Andronicus and paraphrase them, as carefully and completely as possible, in modern English. Rearrange the words to make the meaning as straightforward as you can. (If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, try to preserve the original meter if there is one!) Don’t rely exclusively on the notes in your edition. Use the Oxford English Dictionary to look up any words that you don’t recognize, or that you suspect might have had a different definition in the period. And try to find puns and ambiguities that don’t quite work in your more-straightforward version: what might we miss about this passage if we were to read over it too quickly?
Then, write a long paragraph commenting on the passage. I particularly want to know what aspects of it strike you as distinctive within the play—unique to a particular character or relationship between two characters, to a particular scene or location, or just different from Taming of the Shrew (or other Shakespearean plays you have read.)
In case you’re stuck, here are a few things you might want to think about:
• Is the passage in prose or verse? And how might you describe its rhythms—does it move quickly or slowly? Is it hard or easy to read aloud?
• Does anything strike you as unusual about any of the metaphors or images that Shakespeare uses? Or conversely, does a passing image in the passage seem to foreshadow or echo something else in the play?
• How would you describe your character’s diction? Is it plain, ornate, simple, mixed, complicated, or perhaps something else entirely? Are there ambiguities, ironies, or instances of sarcasm that you didn’t catch until you paraphrased? What else do you notice?
Don’t worry about pinning everything down precisely. Just brainstorm and try to be as specific as you can in the short space. When we combine our efforts, we’ll produce a rich account of the language of the play that will help to guide our discussion and reading.
Since Alexander Pope (and earlier!), a host of critics have argued that the power of poetry comes from a relationship between the sound of a passage and its meanings–the sound and the sense. For the assignment this week, we are going to test this account of poetry in relation to some Renaissance and medieval verse.
Choose a passage of about 4 lines from one of the poems read for next week. Read it aloud a couple of times, paying attention to the sounds of the words, the meter, and the syntax. Then, in a long paragraph, suggest how the poem’s sounds and its sense work together, or, if you’d prefer, how there is a tension between them.
Here are a few ideas to get you started. if you have any questions about any of these terms, please ask in class. I want to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Alliteration, assonance, consonance: When several nearby words begin with the same letter, the effect is called alliteration. Assonance and consonance occur when vowel or consonant sounds (respectively) are repeated, not necessarily at the beginning of the words.
Examples: When to the sessions of sweet silent thought….
These sonic devices build connections between words, and depending on their sound, can suggest a particular tonality. In the Shakespeare line above, the “s” sounds across “sessions,” “sweet,” and “silent” may suggest the quiet reverie of recollection, reinforced in the next line more subtly by the same sounds towards the end of words like “remembrance,” “things,” and “past.” Notice the sound moves from the front of the words to the back, as the emphasis moves from thought itself to its subjects.
Metrical irregularities or inversions: The sonnets selected are written almost exclusively in iambic pentameter or hexameter. Iambic meters, though, allow for some amount of irregularity, particularly in the substitution of a trochee for an iamb. Such effects can call attention to particular words or phrases or simply mimic the patterns of speech.
Example: Fool, said my muse to me, look in thy heart and write.
Here, the initial foot has been inverted, with the emphasis falling on the first syllable of the foot rather than the second. The result is that Astrophil’s muse pulls him up short with the sudden outburst: the effect is surprising and powerful. We might also note that the alliteration in “m’ speeds up that portion of the line somewhat.
Enjambment, caesurae: Enjambment occurs when meaning flows across a line break. It can suggest violence, passion, complexity, or simply the rhythms of everyday speech. A caesura is a pause in the middle of the line. In hexameters if often occurs between syllables 6 and 7, breaking the line in half. In pentameters, you tend to find it after the 4th or 6th syllable, but it could be anywhere. Placement of pauses affects the poem’s rhythm and emphasis.
This is a rather incomplete list. Feel free to add your own effects to the catalog. Our goal is simply to start the conversation on poetic form and sound.
This time through Romeo and Juliet, pay attention to what surprises you. How does the play seem different from your memories of the play, from past productions or films of it you’ve seen, or from associations with the play in popular culture?
How would you direct a production that emphasized this strangeness? Sketch out one (or more than one) interpretive decision you would make to bring this particular difference to light. You might want to think about the tone of particular lines, the treatment of particular stage directions, doubling, stage business, cutting lines (or scenes or characters), or ways of playing up particular motifs in the play through costuming or staging.
Choose a moment where one of our assigned secondary readings lingers over a particular example. It might be to explain a principle, demonstrate a difference, or prove a point.
Then, choose a song, and imitate the example you’ve chosen. Analyze your song choice as if you were that critic, at that point of his/her argument. So, if you’re imitating Bradley, you might talk about scansion, verbal devices, and the way both are inflected by the voice. If, on the other hand, you’re imitating Covach, you might choose to mention song structure, the timing of various elements, and harmonic progression.
If you have trouble, ask for help. You might want to ask what a particular technical term means, whether you’re right in applying a certain concept, or how to describe some aspect of your example. Use your classmates as a resource.
Write something that we can search our inboxes for whenever we get confused by an idea. You might want to provide examples (with time-stamps) to make your explanations more clear, point us to particular pages of the reading, or guide us to an outside resource you’ve found useful. Be an expert!
1. Write three well-written, focused, clear and persuasive sentences about some aspect of the Phantom Tollbooth. Make your sentences shine in the ways we’ve been talking about. Use powerful verbs; make your syntax work for you; let description take on interpretive force.
2. Pick someone else’s sentence and rewrite it ten different ways. Try to make these variations as different as you possibly can while getting across the exact same idea. Can you cut its length in half? Can you make the object into the subject and vice versa? Can you add a metaphor? Make it entirely literal?
Which of your versions is best?
Paired Assignment: Collecting and Distilling Evidence
This is a two-part assignment. (Note: This assignment does not scale well, as it requires quite a bit of teacherly engagement. I try to send multiple rounds of revisions for the sentences offered in part 2.)
1. Choose a single page of a single volume of the Nutshell Library and write at least 500 words about it.
You might want to look at our hand-outs on close-reading for ideas of what to write about. A few to get you started: diction, imagery, repeated sounds or shapes, the relation between words and picture, little details you notice in the art, the thickness of the line, the use of color, etc.
Don’t worry about editing your sentences for style–this is exercise in sustained attention.
2. Write a single sentence that distills the absolute best thing you can say about that same page. Edit it for clarity, for analytic purchase, and for stylistic punch. Make it shine.
King Lear Close-Reading Exercise
For your post this week, I want you to describe a very short passage that you think is typical of King Lear’s speech (the King and not the play!) at a given point in the play. Pick, at most, 2-3 sentences, and attempt to say as much as you can about their form and its style. To do this, first paraphrase as simply and straightforwardly as you can while representing details accurately. Then, really try to capture as much information as you can about how King Lear is using language at this moment. Start by describing his sentences–their length, their structure, their tense and mood. Whom are they addressed to?
Then look more specifically to how it says the thing it says. Here are some things (though far from all) that you might look for.
1. Repeated words/phrases: Are there important words or phrases in the passage that appear more than once? Does the writer use the same form of words repeatedly or rephrase ideas using synonyms? Are there important words or phrases that appear only once in the passage, but that you recognize as words or phrases that are used elsewhere in the work?
2. Comparisons and contrasts: Is the passage marked by similarities or differences? Does the language focus on ways in which elements of the passage (language, visual impressions, characters, etc.) are like each other, or does it emphasize oppositions? Are there words or phrases that are not directly compared or contrasted with anything in the passage itself, but that you recognize as being part of comparisons or contrasts that appear elsewhere in the work?
3. Ambiguous words: Are there words that could make the passage mean different things depending on how you interpret them? Look up these words in the OED. Which meanings might be relevant?
4. Figurative language: Are there similes, metaphors, or other forms of figurative language (e.g. metonymy, synecdoche, etc.) in the passage?
5. Allusion: Does the language make references to other works of literature or elements of culture that seem significant?
6. Sound: When you read the passage aloud, do you notice any patterns? For example, are there a lot of words that begin with the same sound (alliteration)? Or a lot of words that rhyme—like fuse and choose—or that have the same sound in the middle—like fuse, mood, and soothe (assonance)? Is the passage easy to read aloud, or does it have characteristics that make it difficult? Does it sound like everyday speech when you read it? Does it sound very “literary”? Does it use rhythm, rhyme and/or or metre in systematic ways? Does it just sound odd?
7. Arrangement: How does the passage unfold? Does it differ radically from your own straightforward paraphrase? Where does it place its most important information (upfront, withheld ‘til the end, etc.)?
8. Other elements of the language that leap out at you and insist that you pay attention to them.
Don’t feel obliged to build an argument about the text as a whole out of your observations. In class, we’ll compare the whole stack to try to understand how Lear changes over the course of the play.
A Bestiary of Twain’s Sentences
(Note: Compiling all the sentence types found creates a really lovely hand-out that maps out a variety of Twain’s comic and stylistic techniques, in the words of students.)
Identify a type of sentence that you find Twain using throughout your reading. Pick out a few examples of it. Give it a name that describes its function, structure, style, or effect.
For instance, I might declare that one of Mark Twain’s recurring tools is the simple-declarative sentence with comic metaphor. I’ll call this type the simple-metaphor sentence. (It’s a terrible name, but let’s roll with it.)
“So she lifted up her voice at an angle calculated for distance and shouted.”
“He had a citified air about him that ate into Tom’s vitals.”
“The fresh-crowned hero fell without firing a shot.”
Or, I might pick out the type of sentence in which a staccato rhythm of parallel phrases dramatizes ongoing action. I’ll call this type the “noun-verb-verb-verb” sentence.
“The new boy went off brushing the dust from his clothes, sobbing, snuffling, and occasionally looking back and shaking his head and threatening what he would do to Tom the “next time he caught him out.”
“Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.”
“Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth — stepped back to note the effect — added a touch here and there — criticised the effect again — Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed.”
What claims can you make about how Twain uses the type of sentence you observe? Does Twain play with the sentence structure?