Avoiding Be Verb Constructions

Perhaps the most useful writing trick I learned this past summer at Oxford came from my faculty mentor, Mark, a professor of English at Arizona State University. Avoid be verb constructions, he exhorted us. In doing so, we can create more lively writing, writing that vividly attracts our readers' attention. Below is a worksheet that demonstrates how I removed be verbs from my own writing.

1A

Of all the characters in Otway’s Venice Preserv’d, or a Plot Discover’d, Jaffeir is the one I had the most contempt for. He is a wishy-washy, namby-pamby man, if man he can be called. He is inconstant to his wife, inconstant to his best friend, and inconstant to the conspirators, and the play’s conclusion indicates that his killing Pierre before Pierre is tortured and then killing himself is a noble deed, leaving his wife and child on their own.

But I have been educated. Stanley discusses the homosociality of Renaissance England and how the non-sexual male-to-male relationship is part of a social order that exalts male friends’ relationships over all other relationships and contrasts with the modern, Western view that places the romantic relationship between a man and woman first (115). Jaffeir is still inconstant, but his inconstancy to Pierre can be explained by the Renaissance notion that women change men into fools; according to Stanley, talking of Two Gentlemen of Verona, it is the woman who has changed the man into a fool; “Romantic love interfer[s] with true friendship by making men inconstant” (121). It is not until “the Victorian deep freeze” that male emotional expression is limited (117), but Otway, writing in the Restoration, would better understand that a proper Renaissance gentleman had to keep his word at all costs, “particularly with his homosocial relationships” (Stanley 116). We can, thus, better understand the relationships in Shakespeare’s and Otway’s plays with the knowledge that “Homosocial love … was an easy path to happiness; [while] romantic love required deceit, labor, and foolishness, and might not lead to happiness at all” (Stanley 119).

1B

Of all the characters in Otway’s Venice Preserv’d, or a Plot Discover’d, Jaffeir appears the most contemptible to modern audiences. This wishy-washy, namby-pamby emoter barely deserves the name man. His inconstancy to his wife, his best friend, and the conspirators demonstrates a lack of stability, and the play’s conclusion approves as noble deeds killing Pierre before torture and then killing himself, though they leave his wife and child unprovided for. Filtered through the norm of pre-Victorian England, Jaffeir’s relationships reflect the Renaissance ideal of the non-sexual male-to-male relationship as part of a social order that exalts male friends’ relationships over all other relationships and contrasts with the modern, Western view that places the romantic relationship between a man and woman first (Stanley 115). Jaffeir remains inconstant, but the Renaissance notion that women change men into fools explains his inconstancy to Pierre; according to Stanley, talking of Two Gentlemen of Verona, the woman changes the man into a fool: “Romantic love interfer[s] with true friendship by making men inconstant” (121). “[T]he Victorian deep freeze” limits male emotional expression (117), but Otway, writing in the Restoration, understands that a proper gentleman has to keep his word at all costs, “particularly with his homosocial relationships” (116). We can, thus, better understand the relationships in Shakespeare’s and Otway’s plays with the knowledge that “Homosocial love … was an easy path to happiness; [while] romantic love required deceit, labor, and foolishness, and might not lead to happiness at all” (119).

2A

Women are objects to be owned and are not part of men’s world of friendships for Jaffeir says that he will “partake the troubles of [Pierre’s] Bosom” (Venice Preserv’d Act I, p. 15), and Pierre responds that Jaffeir’s home is ransacked, that “The very Bed, which … Receiv’d thee to the Arms of Belvidera” was “thrown amongst the common Lumber” to be sold to pay his debts (p. 16). Jaffeir says he “will revenge my Belvidera’s Tears” (p. 17); he is not revenging her disgrace but a part of her. She is not even object but a place “where shall [he] have Harbour,” made by “Nature … to temper Man” (p. 18). As a woman, Belvidera’s job is to tame man (see 18th century grammars research), and Jaffeir “wonder[s] how [Nature] made her” (p. 19). It should not be so wondrous; men and women are made the same, but Jaffeir makes out that as a woman Belvidera is somehow different, something other than man.

2B

Men own women as objects in a separate sphere from the men’s world of friendships for Jaffeir says that he will “partake the troubles of [Pierre’s] Bosom” (Venice Preserv’d Act I, p. 15); he will join with Pierre’s cause, forgetting the cause of his wife and child. Pierre feels Jaffeir’s care but knows Jaffeir values Belvidera. He shares the ransacking of Jaffeir’s home and does not mention Belvidera but the bed instead. “The very Bed, which … Receiv’d thee to the Arms of Belvidera” was “thrown amongst the common Lumber” to be sold to pay Jaffeir’s debts (p. 16). Jaffeir says he “will revenge my Belvidera’s Tears” (p. 17); he will not revenge her disgrace but a part of her. Objectified as part of a place, Belvidera’s bed no longer offers Jaffeir a “Harbour? / Where ease [his] loaded Heart?” (p. 18). “Nature,” Jaffeir cries, made Belvidera’s body, not her mind or her soul, “to temper Man” (p. 18). She exists for his use in taming him (see 18th century grammars research), and he “wonder[s] how [Nature] made her” (p. 19). It should not be so wondrous; men and women are made the same, but Jaffeir believes that as a woman Belvidera exists differently as something other than (hu)man.

3

Jaffeir is still inconstant, but his inconstancy to Pierre can be explained by the Renaissance notion that women change men into fools…

Jaffeir remains inconstant …

4

As Benjamin noted with civilization and barbarism, categories are presented as “symmetrical binary oppositions” (Sedgwick Epistemology 9). The first term (term A for Sedgwick) in the duality subordinates the second term (term B) and “actually depends for its meaning on the simultaneous subsumption and exclusion” of the second term (Sedgwick Epistemology 9).

As Benjamin noted with civilization and barbarism, categories presented as “symmetrical binary oppositions” require that the first term (term A for Sedgwick) in the duality subordinates the second term (term B) and “actually depends for its meaning on the simultaneous subsumption and exclusion” of the second term (Sedgwick Epistemology 9).

5

Power is not symmetrical in erotic (male) triangles (Sedgwick Between Men loc. 732); one relationship is primary.

Assymetrical power relations predominate erotic (male) triangles (Sedgwick Between Men loc. 732), with one relationship functioning as primary.

6

Desdemona is no longer his, warns Iago, and Brabantio wonders “How she got out” (I.i.164) for women are enclosed and under “guardage” (I.ii.70), not free to act on their own.

Desdemona no longer belongs to her father, warns Iago, …

7

Earlier Othello appeals to the father state of Venice that the Duke “Let her have your voice” (I.iii.258), that she have the language of the male Senate to determine where she is to live while Othello leaves for war.

… that she have the language of the male Senate to determine where she lives while Othello goes to war.

8

For Iago, the use is revenge.

For Iago, using women exacts revenge.

9

They are not human, not women, but creatures whom the men “had tasted [of their] sweet bod[ies]” (III.iii.347) and who could be observed being “topped” (I.i.86; III.iii.397) and torn to pieces (431).

Inhuman, not women, men “tasted [of their sweet bod[ies] (III.iii.347) and watched as others “topped” them (I.i.86; III.iii.397) and torn them to pieces (431).

10

According to Emilia, she and Desdemona are “all but food” for the men who “when they are full / They belch us” out (Othello III.iv.101-3).

According to Emilia, she and Desdemona feed the men who “when they are full / They belch us” out (Othello III.iv.101-3).

11

Women are exchanged, are animals, are objects that bring wealth as part of a bride price (that Brabantio was denied when Desdemona snuck away to marry), and are but sport.

Men exchange women, view them as animals or objects that bring wealth as part of a bride price (denied to Brabantio when Desdemona snuck away to marry), and exist as sport.

12

Now Belvidera is Renault’s property.

Now Belvidera belongs to Renault.

13

Men are undone by women as Jaffeir, because he loves Belvidera, breaks his arrangement with the conspirators, sees Belvidera, and learns that Renault assaulted her.

Women undo men …

14

No matter the outcome, if the conspirators kill all of the Senators and their families or if the conspirators are caught and killed, it has been across Belvidera, the bond Jaffeir gave as surety for being faithful to his male friends.

No matter the outcome, if the conspiracy success or fails, it has been across Belvidera, the bond Jaffeir gave as surety for being faithful to his male friends.

15

Both Jaffeir and Othello are welcome guests in Priuli’s and Brabantio’s households and are, indeed, treated as if the fathers had mentored the younger men.

Priuli and Brabantio welcome Jaffeir and Othello as guests and treat the men as their mentors.

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