Shakespeare’s hysterectomies

by Harry on June 8, 2006

Richard Garner provides some nice howlers about Shakespeare from 14-year-olds. Worth showing to your own 14-yr-olds, perhaps:

a pupil dealt with Macbeth’s three witches and the appearance of the dagger used to kill Duncan by saying: “Macbeth had been smoking up and imaged them all.”

Macbeth, on hearing of his wife’s death, according to one pupil,”goes into full-on soliloquy mode”. Another says that the Scottish noble gets his revenge because “as my mum always sez ‘wot goes around comes around'”.

I’ve deliberately not quoted the best ones.



Kieran Healy 06.08.06 at 3:30 pm

I always wonder whether these are for real — some of them are just a bit too good. After the next election cycle in Britain I look forward to revivals of Shakespeare’s political comedy, “Love, Labour’s Lost.”


c 06.08.06 at 3:39 pm

I read a paper last week that referred to the “Yam Kipper War.”


lemuel pitkin 06.08.06 at 3:43 pm

But the article says that Baz Luhrman’s film of Romeo and Juliet was set in Los Angeles, which is a bit of a howler itself — the setting was a fictional but clearly Latin American city, a pastiche of Mexico City and Rio.


asg 06.08.06 at 3:48 pm

The name of the city in Luhrmann’s R&J is “Verona Beach”, a clear riff on Venice Beach as well as all the other California towns between LA and San Diego that have “beach” in their names. I think it was pretty clearly intended to be in the U.S.


Andrew Edwards 06.08.06 at 5:04 pm

“He wrote tragedies, comedies and hysterectomies – all in Islamic pentameter.”

Has got to be either made up by a teacher or an intentional joke by a very clever student.


harry b 06.08.06 at 5:12 pm

HE seems to have drawn them all from a TES web page, ut I can’t find it, or we could check the authenticity.


John Quiggin 06.08.06 at 5:41 pm

I’m surprised we haven’t seen an article lamenting the declining quality of student (formerly “schoolboy”) howlers. Nothing in this year’s crop matches Islamic pentameter or Milton’s timing for Paradise Lost and Regained.

Of course, it’s unfair to pit one year against the selected best of the past (including possible fabrications as ae notes), but that’s a standard trick in “decline of the English …” articles.


rea 06.08.06 at 6:34 pm

Well, but it’s quite arguable that Macbeth IS hallucinating the 3 witches-remember the banquet scene later on, when Macbeth sees spirits no one else does? And Macbeth DOES go into full-on soliloquy mode on hearing of the death of his wife. And the play IS about sin and retribution, “what goes around comes around,” isn’t it?


John Emerson 06.08.06 at 7:39 pm

“Wot goes around comes around” is a folk expression of the idea of nemesis, reciprocity, retribution, etc. I agree with Rea.


saurabh 06.08.06 at 7:53 pm

Ah – I recognize one of these (the one about Milton) from a text I found when I was in the sixth grade. I’m pleased to see that it has made it onto the Internet. My favorite gaff: “The nineteenth century was a time of many great inventions and thoughts… Cyrus McCormick invented the McCormick Raper, which did the work of a hundred men.”


M. Gordon 06.08.06 at 8:25 pm

My sister* once, at the Univ of Michigan, in a women’s studies course, accidentally wrote about “colored women” instead of “women of color” in a paper, and received, on that basis alone, an F from the TA (who was a woman of color.) Actually, this is a good crowd to ask: do you think that was fair? I’ve always thought that I would have protested vigorously over receiving an F for what was essentially a typo, but she just shrugged it off. Any opinions?

[*For ethnic comparison, note that my sister, her husband, and their friends were once referred to by a Latino youth as resembling “the cast of Dawson’s Creek.”]


Neil the Ethical Werewolf 06.08.06 at 9:10 pm

I once had a student write on an exam that according to the Pope, “the soul enters the body at the moment of contraception.”


dr ngo 06.09.06 at 12:58 am

Re #11: Yes, getting an “F” was bullshit, and she should have protested it. Over many years of teaching (including a number at Michigan, as it happens) I have sometimes had occasion to reprimand students for careless and offensive use of language, But I never failed an entire assignment for this – in fact I rarely even reduced the grade, figuring that being told something to the effect that “civilized people don’t say that sort of thing” was lesson enough for one day.


derek 06.09.06 at 2:00 am

None of the quotes you’ve supplied look like actual howlers to me, only the kids commenting on Shakespeare using their own language. If they’re failing their “Formal English Essay-writing” classes as a result, you need to make that clear, but if these were responses to an “Elizabethan English Theatre” class I was teaching, I’d feel encouraged by these three clearly enthusiastic (if, in the case of the second, a little arch) remarks.

Macbeth was the play my own teachers used to put me off Shakespeare at school, and even after I re-discovered him, years afterward, it was the play I found hardest to appreciate because of the bad memories. If they’re doing better at teaching children Macbeth without ruining Shakespeare’s appeal today, then good for them.


Sharon 06.09.06 at 2:52 am

The article (and apparently the site on which it’s based) is confusing a lot of different things – errors of fact or failure to read the text; simple slips of the pen under the stress and haste of exam conditions; and perfectly good ideas that happen to be couched in non-academic, idiomatic language. I agree with 8 and 9. Those teenagers are using their own experiences and words and interpreting the plays for themselves. It’s called, you know, cultural appropriation.

I do wince at the text-message spellings, but whose spelling and grammar is perfect in exam scripts? Same goes for making fun of a student writing of Lady M’s “desire to have Macbeth on the throne”. It’s not wrong, is it? So what if s/he wrote ‘have’ instead of (say) ‘put’? It’s the teacher putting the innuendo there, not the student.

This is one reason why too many schoolkids end up hating ‘proper’ literature. When they do attempt to engage with it and understand it, they’re ridiculed for not doing it in the ‘correct’ teacher-approved way.

‘Donkey Hote’ – now that’s funny. Well, either that or it’s dyslexia.


Brendan 06.09.06 at 3:16 am

A friend of mine is a teacher. He showed me some maths papers the other day. One showed a triangle with numers on two of the sides, and ‘x’ on the third side. The question was ‘Find X’. The pupil had circled the ‘X’ and in big letters written ‘Here it is!!!’


bad Jim 06.09.06 at 3:31 am

It was reported that a recycling bin on campus in Berkeley had “colored paper” corrected to “paper of color”, and someone responsible was quoted saying “that isn’t funny”.


ajay 06.09.06 at 4:12 am

I think, if you’re doing a women’s studies course, you should more or less expect that kind of thing to happen. Different if you’re, say, writing a chemistry lab report and refer to the generic experimenter as “he” – it would be unfair to get an F then. But in women’s studies, that sort of thing is quite a big part of the course. (On the other hand, confusing sulphide and sulphate probably wouldn’t be taken quite as seriously.)


a 06.09.06 at 6:09 am

brendon – that is an old joke. It made the eMail circuit a year or so ago. BTW I can’t follow your link.


harry b 06.09.06 at 7:18 am

I’ve lived with an English teacher (high school) for I can’t remember how many years and one of the reasons that these howlers recur (on the internet etc) is that they recur endlessly in real life. I have seen oodles of howlers, none quite in the class of the Islamic pentameter, but many good for a laugh. And that is just one teacher.

I always found the math examples harder to believe (like Brendan’s) but now I have a daughter whose math homework is frequently given to her before the concepts and operations are explained and, because they are switching to a new math program, equally often hasn’t been adequately screened by the teachers (so has errors like “Find X” rather than “Find the value of X”). So, I now believe that Brendan’s example probably occurs in some household every day of the week.


bryan 06.09.06 at 8:27 am

anyone who says that Macbeth goes into “full-on soliloquy mode” deserves an A+, and a recommendation to favorite institute of Higher Education.


lemuel pitkin 06.09.06 at 10:20 am

The name of the city in Luhrmann’s R&J is “Verona Beach”, a clear riff on Venice Beach

Why must you all know so much more than me about everything?


john c. halasz 06.09.06 at 7:21 pm

My favorite one of these was from an American article a few years back like today’s: “Plato invented reality. His teacher was Mr. Harry Tottle.” Only that article concerned actual exam answers by college freshmen…


John Quiggin 06.10.06 at 12:01 am

A real life example from my schooldays, going the other way. A paper included a question starting

“Can you define …”

I was sorely tempted to write “No” and claim full marks, but sadly I would have been lying in this case.


Seth Finkelstein 06.10.06 at 1:59 pm

I’m with andrew/#5. Especially that “hysterectomies” has got to be a made-up blooper. Think about it – it’s a substitution of a much more obscure word for a very common word (“histories”). That’s the reverse of the malapropisms usually done by people grasping at unfamiliar terms.

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