During his remarkable and prolific career, William Shakespeare wrote nearly forty plays and more than one hundred and fifty sonnets. This course guides students through themes and character studies which are as relevant today as they were four hundred years ago and considers the social, political and philosophical issues that influenced and inspired the remarkable “Bard of Avon”. The Shakespeare course is adapted to the individual student’s own interests and knowledge of Shakespeare, but students will examine in detail each of the major dramatic genres – tragedy, comedy and history – as well as gaining an insight into the life and times of England’s finest dramatist.
- Introduction: Shakespeare’s life and times and the theatre of his day.
- Tragedy: Tragic heroes and their fatal flaws – Hamlet and
- The Tudor Myth: Shakespeare at his most subversive – Richard III and Henry IV parts one and two.
- Love and lovers in Shakespearean comedy: Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
- The Bard of Avon: The influence of Shakespeare’s sonnets on English poetry.
- Roman Shakespeare: Revenge and the Roman Ideal – Titus Andronicus and Antony and Cleopatra.
- Women in Shakespeare: Gender politics – Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew.
- Shakespeare’s Outsiders: Stereotypes and Scapegoats – Othello and The Merchant of Venice.
- Fairytales and folklore: Rough magic and the human condition – The Tempest
For each unit, students will be expected to read at least one core text of their choice, which can be linked to a secondary text in class discussion. Students may choose alternative texts to those listed above after discussion with their tutor.
Course Aims, Objectives and Outcomes
There is no single or common aim, objective or outcome in the study of Shakespeare. What is provided is a framework of study in which students may explore, discover or develop an interest in a particular aspect or aspects of the Shakespearean canon. Whereas the course may be a starting point for some, for others it will offer a chance to deepen and broaden the knowledge and understanding they already possess. Whichever the case, the course is primarily based on play-readings, textual analysis and theatre or video productions. Individual projects may be selected by the student and need not be confined to a single or conventional academic approach.
Using Hamlet as an example, the following is a guide to the type of questions which might be chosen in regard to theme, character or language.
- “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Discuss the theme of corruption and its significance in the play, paying particular attention to Shakespeare’s use of imagery.
- “Torn between the desire to avenge his father’s death and a fear of punishment from God, Hamlet is justified in delaying his “sweep” to revenge.” To what extent do you agree with this statement?
- “God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” Explore the presentation of women in Hamlet in light of this comment.
- Choose any scene, extract or speech from the play which you find particularly interesting or compelling and explain why you have chosen it and what significance it might have for the play as a whole.
Students will be awarded a final grade based on classroom contribution and attendance, satisfactory completion of reading and research-based homework, and on the submission of at least two written papers on topics of their choice. Critical material may be incorporated into essays by those students who wish.
Written work is assessed on the understanding that there is no right or wrong answer in literature, but each point made should be well-substantiated with appropriate evidence. Essays which score highly will be those which include a coherent and logical argument, detailed textual reference and a firm grasp of, and sensitivity towards, characterisation.
This class is normally delivered over one term, with 90 teaching contact hours or equivalent in the Michaelmas term, and 60 teaching contact hours for Hilary and Trinity terms. For students requesting credit, we recommend the transfer of three college credits for Michaelmas and two college credits for Hilary and Trinity, on successful completion of the class.
Recommended Introductory Reading and Textbooks
The list below is for guidance and to supply some ideas for preliminary reading. We recommend that you do not purchase the books on this list before arrival and certainly not all of them; most should be available from a good library. Your tutor will recommend the most appropriate books for purchase at the first class of term.
We recommend the New Cambridge, Arden or New Swan editions of Shakespeare. Useful reference books include:
The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare – Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (Oxford University Press: 2005)
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare – Margeta de Grazia and Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press: 2001)
Shakespeare’s Language – Frank Kermode (Penguin Brooks Ltd: 2001)