The Wednesday Wars

by Gary Schmidt

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How did Holling use his knowledge of curses from The Tempest in The Wednesday Wars?

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Holling Hoodhood is the seventh-grade protagonist of The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, and he has been spending his Wednesday afternoons reading Shakespeare's plays, including The Tempest, with his teacher, Mrs. Baker. Holling discovers the monster, Caliban, does a lot of cursing; and Hollis is certain Mrs. Baker must not have read the play before or she would not have assigned it to him.

Holling find's the curses so impressive that he

decided to learn them all by heart--even if [he] didn't know exactly what they meant.

He is not too worried about knowing exactly what each curse means; he is convinced that knowing exactly what they mean does not matter very much.

It's all in the delivery, anyway.

Holling practices his curses in front of the mirror every night, and he even gets creative and combines some of the curses because he thinks they sound better. Note the following:

  • Strange stuff, the dropsy drown you.
  • Blind mole, a wicked dew from unwholesome fen drop you.
  • Apes with foreheads villainous low.
  • Though jesting monkey thou.

He uses these and other curses randomly throughout the school day, though most of the time he says them under his breath, kind of experimenting with them. Though he is half afraid to really speak the curses aloud or to anyone, he eventually teaches one of them ("pied ninny") to one of his friends, though he just makes up a definition (which later gets his friend in a bit of trouble).

Unfortunately for Holling, Mrs. Baker figures out that he is paying more attention to the curses than to the actual story, so he is required to read the play again. 

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In Gary Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars, how does Holling Hoodhood use his knowledge of the curses he learned from the tempest?

In Gary D. Schmidt’s young adult novel The Wednesday Wars, Holling Hoodhood is a seventh-grader in the tumultuous year of 1967, and takes place against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam – a war that would come to have increasing meaning for Holling as the story progresses certain characters become more important in the young man’s life.  On top of that list of increasingly influential figures stands Mrs. Baker, Holling’s teacher whom he believes hates him and seeks to punish him during their solitary Wednesday meetings by making him read the works of William Shakespeare.  Having surprisingly enjoyed the first such volume thrust upon him, The Merchant of Venice, Mrs. Baker follows that selection up with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which Holling discovers he enjoys even more than the earlier volume assigned him.  And, it is in The Tempest and the story of Prospero and his adventures on the island to which he has been banished by fate that Holling discovers the wonderful world of witchcraft. 

Holling is frowned  upon by some of his fellow students for accidentally releasing the classroom pets, a pair of rats named Sycorax and Caliban, not coincidentally, the names of two characters from The Tempest, the former a deceased witch, and the latter her son who now serves at the pleasure of Prospero.  In Shakespeare’s play, Caliban, despite being Prospero’s servant, harbors very deeply-held hatred towards his new master, who he believes stole the island that rightfully belongs to him:

“This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother,

Which thou takest from me. When thou camest first,”

This objection directed at Prospero is then followed by this wish for the poor health of his master:

“All the charms

Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!

For I am all the subjects that you have,

Which first was mine own king:”

Convinced that Mrs. Baker hates him and that the reading assignments are a form of punishment, Holling believes that his adversary has inadvertently armed him with a powerful weapons: the curses of Caliban.  As he suggests in his narration,

“It was surprising how much good stuff there was.  A storm, attempted murders, witches, wizards, invisible spirits, revolutions, characters drinking until they’re dead drunk, an angry monster named Caliban? . . .I was amazed that Mrs. Baker was letting me read this. . . I figured she hadn’t read it herself, otherwise she would never have let me at it.”

Holling is taken by the character of Caliban’s use of colorful curses, and begins to use them himself as exclamatory remarks expressed in frustration or to punctuate unpleasant conversations, as when he mutters under his breath in the presence of Mrs. Baker, “Strange stuff, the dropsy drown you.  Holling’s infatuation with the curses becomes a mission:

“I decided to ease into things more naturally, to let Caliban curses come where they might fit in without any fuss.”

What follows is a series of inane and obscure quotations uttered in the most mundane of circumstances:

“At lunch recess, Doug Swieteck’s brother lurched across the field, sixth graders scurrying out of his way as if he was a southwest wind about to blister them all over.” (This metaphor itself one of the Caliban curses)

‘Thou jesting monkey thou,’ I said.

Not so that he could hear it.”

As his penchant for quoting Shakespeare as a response to any and all circumstances takes over, he begins to find a kindred spirit in Mrs. Baker, the teacher whom he had believed hated him and sought his academic demise.  The Wednesday Wars would turn out to be the zenith of Holland’s seventh grade experience.  He has learned how to express himself in a manner with which no adult, even those who understand the source of his newly-discovered wisdom, can possibly argue.  It is a powerful weapon, indeed.

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