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Parsing the Bard

Emma Thrasher '19, who presented her research at an international collegiate honor society for students of English. (Photo by Brian Busher) 

ALBANY. N.Y. (June 6, 2018) — Emma Thrasher proves that, with the right academic background, one gets new perspectives even on Shakespeare.

Thrasher, who enters her senior year this fall, sees method in Hamlet’s author assigning different uses of personal pronouns to Hamlet, a prince of medieval Denmark, and Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father in order to take the throne and marry his queen.

“I linked their usage of ‘I’ — or the lack of ‘I’ — to the characters' perceptions of their own legitimacy to the throne,” said Thrasher, a double major in English and Honors Political Science with an additional double minor in History and Philosophy. “My goal was to write an academic paper linking these peculiarities in the play’s language to Hamlet’s broader themes.”

So well did Thrasher achieve that goal that her paper, “Hamlet Myself: A First-Person Examination," was selected for presentation in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the March convention of Sigma Tau Delta, an international collegiate honor society for students of English at four-year colleges and universities who are within the top 30 percent of their class and have a 3.5 GPA.

“This was a great experience for Emma ─ and nice for the University, too, to have one of our most accomplished majors garner this kind of national exposure and recognition,” said Carolyn Yalkut, associate professor of English and a mentor to Thrasher.

In the paper, Thrasher compares Hamlet's nonuse of first-person pronouns in the "to be or not to be" soliloquy to Claudius's ample usage in his "confession" soliloquy. The king, noted Thrasher, says "I" or "me" 16 times in that piece, while Hamlet never directly refers to himself, more often using the royal “we” when not waxing philosophically on cowardice, death, honor, suicide and more.

“Claudius, with his relentless use of ‘I,” implies doubt of his own legitimacy [to the throne],” wrote Thrasher. Hamlet, by contrast, as a prince born into a royal family, “has no need to prove his own legitimacy to himself or any others.”

Thrasher expands this usage into the various audiences each may be trying to reach: each other, their own psyches and, in Hamlet’s case, the universal listener, including us.

She presented her work to a full conference room of (she estimated) 50 to 60 people. “My presentation was one of 16 taking place at that time. I believe it was well received, as a number of questions were asked during the formal question and answer time and several people came up to me after the presentation to continue the discussion.”

Both now and when she entered UAlbany, Thrasher has pointed toward law school. “But books have been a large part of my life for as long as I can remember,” she said. “It was not until I started my English classes here that I discovered I enjoyed academic writing, and by the end of my freshman year I decided I wanted to double major in English.”

Maximizing Her Disciplines

She has found all her majors and minors complement her goals: “It is often useful to understand the context in which something was written or a particular event took place — something I developed through studying history. With philosophy I have focused on argument structures and styles, which helps me to best formulate my own ideas and understand the reasoning behind others' ideas and arguments.

“My concentration in political science, public law, has made me sensitive to the presence of laws in a society and their far-reaching effects. This offers me a starting point for analysis regardless of which discipline I am studying at the moment. English has taught me to both condense a large amount of information into something much smaller and find a large amount of meaning in something else much smaller.

“I have found that these skills translate quite well across disciplines and I draw from them regularly — including in my ‘Hamlet Myself’ paper.”

The Greene, N.Y., native credits Yalkut with “incredible” guidance and support. “This paper started in her AENG 305 class, and she offered many helpful suggestions and possible sources at various stages of the drafting process. Once the paper was selected, she worked diligently to ensure I had the funding needed to attend and present.”

Financial help came from a generous grant from an English Department fund dedicated to undergraduate research, a stipend from national Sigma Tau headquarters and a contribution from Theta Phi, UAlbany's English Honors Society chapter, of which Thrasher will serve as president her senior year.

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