Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century masterpiece shows ten young Florentine nobles fleeing a city devastated by plague, retiring to a country villa to divert themselves with the telling of tales—one tale each for ten days. Populated by gullible merchants, wily apprentices, self-possessed daughters, and libidinous nuns, these tales feature a series of practical jokes, remarkable journeys, love, deception, and family drama—all with a blend of wit, wonderment, and buffoonery. From this hundredfold collection, our class will look at just a decimal selection—a curated “top ten” tales from this set of ten tens. We conclude the course by watching the 2017 film adaptation of two of these tales, The Little Hours.
Learn the fundamentals of dialogue, action, and dramatic structure in this introduction to writing for performance. Working within the limits of one set, three actors, and ten minutes, participants in this class will learn the basic building blocks of script-writing by crafting short, stand-alone narratives for the stage. Though we will be looking at a few contemporary short plays as examples, the bulk of this class will focus on writing and workshopping your own original scripts.
This course offers an in-depth look at the first complete “historical” narrative of the reign of King Arthur, Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae – as well as the centuries-long controversy this book generated. Comprising almost a quarter of Geoffrey’s History (Books 4 – 11), this crucial first account of the king includes the arrival of the Saxons in England, a battle of dragons, the boy Merlin’s prophetic visions, Arthur’s magically-contrived conception, his conquest of Rome, and his overthrown and death at the hands of his nephew Mordred. This course will also look at the battle of books that ensued following the appearance of Geoffrey’s work, with some contemporary chroniclers alleging that Geoffrey had simply made the whole thing up, and others rallying to Geoffrey’s (and Arthur’s) defense.
Stating the history of the world from Creation to Doomsday, the biblical play cycles of fourteenth and fifteenth century England provided a vernacular version of scripture. Part of the days-long civic festivals surrounding key liturgical holidays, these cycles presented a mixture of theatrical spectacle, theological instruction, social commentary, and civic pageantry to residents of York, Chester, Coventry, and other populous cities. Beginning with an overview of medieval staging practices, this course will examine a sample of medieval biblical plays from various cycles including The Creation and Fall of Lucifer, Noah’s Flood, Abraham and Isaac, The Second Shepherd’s Play, Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents, The Crucifixion, The Harrowing of Hell, and The Last Judgement. The plays will be read in a beginner-friendly modernized-spelling Middle English edition edited by A. C. Cawley, so that familiarity with Middle English is not a requirement. However, scholarly online Middle English editions will also be made available for students wishing to practice their skills in that area.
Why do bad things happen to good people? How can we know which is the best philosophy to live by in a world of chaos? This course shows how Voltaire’s raucous comic novella answers those questions. Join the young Candide on a series of misadventures that includes war, shipwreck, earthquake, religious persecution, dismemberment, amorous monkeys, New World discovery, royal dethronement, and the French. Along the way, he experiences love and loss, acquires a group of misfit companions, and encounters a host of competing philosophies – each trying to explain how the world got the way it is and how to make living there bearable. Though primary emphasis will be placed on the novel, we will also look at short excerpts both from Voltaire’s philosophical writing relevant to the novel and from Leonard Bernstein’s musical dramatization of the work.
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).
Can Sir Gawain keep his honor without losing his head? This short classic of Middle English chivalric romance follows Gawain on a quest testing his heroism, social etiquette, sexual virtue, and existential sense of self. This course explores: first, the extraordinary history of the single, unique manuscript which preserves this poem (as it “slept” on a library shelf for 400 years, escaped destruction by fire, and was eventually rediscovered in the 19th century); second, the translations which brought this poem to a twentieth century readership – focusing in particular on J.R.R. Tolkien’s; and finally, the 2021 film by David Lowery.
Something dangerous and unexpected is lurking on the periphery of polite Edwardian society. In an oeuvre of short-stories that is shockingly not more widely known, master of dark social comedy H. H. Munro (alias “Saki”) offers a world populated by duchesses, vicars, foreign ambassadors, and idle London playboys – but also escaped hyaenas, talking cats, werewolves, and malevolent pageant gods. This course examines a selection of Saki’s short fiction, along with a brief look at his biography and historical context. Marked by a combination of acid wit, sudden shocking reversals, and a knack for conveying the unmentionable, Saki’s stories are essential reading for anyone interested in the gothic tale, the comic anecdote, or the craft of short fiction writing,
This course offers a close examination of Oscar Wilde’s gothic masterpiece on identity, guilt, and the power of art. In a Faustian bargain, Dorian enjoys seemingly eternal youth while his painted likeness bears the physical (and moral) consequences of a life of debauchery and wickedness. But Dorian learns that sooner or later, as the old saying goes, everyone gets the face they deserve. Focusing mainly on the text of the novel itself, this seminar will also touch on its publication history, its reception in Victorian society, and the life of its author – Wilde’s rise to international celebrity, his “fatal friendship” with Alfred Lord Douglas, and his trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency” in which this novel was presented as evidence of Wilde’s guilt.
This course offers the first in a series on Sir Thomas Malory’s masterpiece of Arthurian literature, Le Morte Darthur—one course for each of the work’s eight books or tales. This fifteenth-century retelling is for many the consummate version of the Arthur legend, combining notable elements of prior versions in a form that would influence later retellings for centuries. The first book of Mallory’s complete work, “The Tale of King Arthur,” includes such crucial Arthurian elements as the Sword in the Stone, the bestowal of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, and the founding of the Round Table. Interspersed among these are Arthur’s first encounter with the Questing Beast, an attempted usurpation by Morgan Le Fay, the tragic tale of the two brothers, Sir Balin and Sir Balan, and numerous other episodes and adventures. Contextual will also be provided on Malory’s life and times, the first printing of his writings by William Caxton in 1485, and the remarkable twentieth-century discovery of the now-standard but then-unknown version of Le Morte Darthur in the form of the Winchester Manuscript.