Want to become a masterful literary sleuth? Come learn Sherlockian skills of poetic detection! In this module, we'll use all the available data (the words on the page) to deduce every last, little, meticulous, ingenious clue the author left for us to unlock the poem's full mystery and majesty. There's so much going on beneath the surface of a poem--connotations, figurative techniques, allusions, intertextual imbrications, formal virtuousity, and more--that it requires patience, analysis, a magnifying glass, and a Dr. Watson along by your side to observe and interpret them all. Together, we'll follow the tracks of genius through poetry old and new. Come along with me: The game's afoot! (a poetic foot, that is).
Precepted by Sørina Higgins.
This module examines two English history plays frequently overlooked in Shakespeare studies: King Henry VI, Part 1 and King John. The rollicking wartime melodrama, King Henry VI, Part 1, shows Joan of Arc from the English perspective as a foul-mouthed, lascivious witch. The virtuous milksop King Henry VI is all but overshadowed in his own play as Joan bedevils the English forces in France again and again—until her own downfall and death. Shakespeare’s most satirically comical history, King John, by contrast, shows a monarch neither competent nor virtuous! Between John’s corrupt and cowardly bungling of a war France, a war with the Pope, and rebellion at home, England’s only hope is the play’s unlikely (and ahistorical) hero—the wily and charming bastard son of the late King Richard the Lionheart. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s English histories, both of these plays are comfortably stand-alone; no prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s other history plays required.
This module looks at two late plays frequently overlooked in Shakespeare studies: Pericles, Prince of Tyre and Cymbeline. In Pericles, Shakespeare and collaborator George Wilkins present a medievalist fairy-tale of adventure on the high seas, set in the ancient Mediterranean and narrated by Middle English poet, John Gower. In Cymbeline, a princess’s attempt to rid herself of the suitor she loathes and reunite with the man she loves leads to a tangle of escapes, pursuits, and mistaken identities. Decried by some critics for their eccentric and eclectic plots, both plays feature grand voyages across land and sea, benevolent magic, and the loss and recovered of true love.
This module looks at two of Shakespeare’s darkest comedies (often described as “Problem Plays” and frequently overlooked in Shakespeare studies): Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. Half an adaptation of Chaucer’s tragic romance, and half a reworking of Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida presents both the lovers and the warriors with a mixture of biting satire, comic buffoonery, and genuine pathos. Likely never staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime, this comedy-history-tragedy has puzzled readers since its first appearance in print. In Measure for Measure, a duke’s attempt to clean up his city’s seedy night-life quickly leads to the attempted sexual blackmail of a nun by duke’s chief deputy. In the chaos of bed-swapping and (threatened) head-chopping that follows, the play narrowly avoids outright tragedy, but whether the final ending could be called “happy” has been debated for centuries. These may actually be the strangest two play Shakespeare ever wrote.
This module looks at two tragedies frequently overlooked in Shakespeare studies: Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens. Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, is also his bloodiest—a rollicking schoolboy burlesque of Roman history, Ovidian poetry, and Elizabethan revenge tragedy that eventually devolves into gory slapstick. Shakespeare’s late tragedy, Timon of Athens, by contrast, offers a scathingly misanthropic view of humanity in the financial and psychological ruin of Timon—an eccentric socialite turned embittered philosopher-hermit. With the first a box-office hit in its own day and the second never staged in Shakespeare lifetime, both plays have stood as two of the bard’s most challenging and provocative works to editors, directors, and readers ever since.
This module looks at Shakespeare’s trilogy of coming-of-age history plays depicting one of England’s most popular medieval monarchs—King Henry V. Beginning with Henry IV, Part 1, we see the young Prince Hal change from wastrel, drunkard, and companion of highway robbers into the royal figure his war-torn country needs. After relapsing in Part 2, we finally see him lead his subjects on the battlefields of France as the mature king in Henry V. Charting his course between the demands of his kingly father, the peculiar philosophy of his friend and mentor, the exuberant Sir John Falstaff, and the dangers posed by a series of political and military rivals, Henry finally learns what it means to “act” the part of a king in the ways that matter most.
This module looks at arguably the greatest of Shakespeare's Tragedies--King Lear. Resolving to divide his kingdom between his daughters, the aged king banishes his closest allies from court, leaving himself and his realm prey to the self-interest and cruelty of those who remain. The course examines this tragedy of betrayal, madness, and family grudges act by act but also supplements these close studies of Shakespeare's text with discussions of the two variant early editions (in Quarto and Folio formats), a brief overview of Shakespeare's sources (Geoffrey of Monmoth's "History of the Kings of Britain" and Holinshed's "Chronicles"), and an examination of Nahum Tate's infamous happy-ending adaptation (the only version of the play staged for next 150 years). Expected weekly reading/listening: approx. 50-70 pages (spread across two hours of class).
Tolkien's take on Shakespeare is often misunderstood, but Macbeth helped Tolkien refine his understanding of fantasy and fairy-story, and The Lord of the Rings's portrayal of how we fall into evil owes much to Macbeth. Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Macbeth was not so.
Precepted by Tom Hillman.