In 1623, Ben Jonson described his friend and competitor William Shakespeare as “the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage! […] He was not of an age but for all time!” Giving such effusive praise to a playwright who had died just a few years prior may seem unwise, since artistic reputation often proves difficult to predict. What is fascinating about Jonson’s estimation, however, is how true it has proven. Unlike the vast majority of early modern playwrights, Shakespeare’s works continue to be read, performed, studied, and adapted around the entire globe—and they’ve been so consistently for four centuries. Is this mere coincidence, a product of branding, band-wagoning, and peer pressure? Or can we unearth, through careful exploration of his works, some of the reasons behind his continued reputation? What, exactly, makes Shakespeare worth reading and studying today? Why are audiences still compelled by his stories? What did he offer his audiences in the sixteenth century, and what is he offering audiences today?
While we may not be able to answer these questions fully or satisfactorily in the span of a semester, the only way to “get at” the answers is by reading his work carefully, closely, critically, and curiously (and, I hope, enthusiastically). Across the course of the semester, we will read a handful of Shakespeare’s sonnets and eight of his plays (including history, comedy, and tragedy), paying close attention to language, genre, structure, and characterization. We will be careful to consider these plays not just as texts to be read but as performances to watch, experience, and embody, noting the ways that sight, sound, staging, and bodies help to mediate our understanding of the text. By situating Shakespeare’s writing within his own literary contexts and by watching recent film adaptations of his work, we will consider the extent to which his timeliness (the historical and cultural rootedness of his work, its “in-time-ness”) contributes to his timelessness.
Fiction and Film: Shakespeare
From their inception, the plays of William Shakespeare were meant to be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears, and experienced in community. Today, the medium of film allows us to encounter Shakespeare in ways his original audiences would have found familiar—and also in ways they could never have imagined. In this course, we’ll consider Shakespeare both as readers and as audience members. As we read and watch plays that span genre (tragedy, comedy, and tragicomedy), we’ll consider what happens when film directors transplant them into a different time and place. Since film adaptations are acts of interpretation, we’ll explore how film expands, restricts, distorts, and/or echoes the plays. Behind this exploration lies a fundamental question: Why are these plays still being read, performed, filmed, and viewed today? And to answer it, we must read and watch Shakespeare’s work. Together, we’ll take on the role of audience members and explore why the Bard still occupies our cultural space.
Watch the Throne: Passion, Poison, and Power in Western Literature
Who has the right to rule? According to what criteria? Who gets to decide? What happens when leaders abuse their power? How do we pursue justice and mercy in the midst of corruption and brokenness? As they have been throughout history, these political questions are mingled with religion, money, tradition, class, and gender. This course explores how literature grapples with questions of power and how those negotiations influence the political sphere. Writers as diverse as Plato, Shakespeare, Milton, and Atwood confront the problems of power and depict the tragic consequences of bad leaders and corrupt kingdoms. By reading a wide selection of poetry, plays, and prose from the canon of Western literature, we’ll consider how literary texts uphold, subvert, and critique power; how they reflect and define political and cultural life; and how they help us reimagine equality, justice, mercy, and peace.
Composition and Research
Why Our Stories Matter
Humans are story-telling beings. We congregate around story; we entertain with story; we know ourselves through story. What power do these stories hold for us, and why do we tell them? If we were to lose story, what about our culture, religion, ethics, or identity would also be lost? This course gives you the skills and resources to think, write, research, and communicate at the college level — and the power of story is the way we’ll get there. The course is designed to help students develop skills for academic success, enhance their engagement with the liberal arts, and provide them with a conceptual framework for learning how to write and research effectively in a variety of social contexts—including their other courses, their major areas of study, and their future vocations.
Cultural Myth and Mythology
This class includes a variety of texts that encourage us to investigate myth and how a body of myths reveals a culture’s history, heroes, and institutions. This seminar in critical writing focuses on the ways that cultural myths and mythologies influence individual and group identities. Students analyze a variety of texts, ranging from non-fiction prose and essays to documentary films. The semester culminates in a research paper that further investigates how cultural myths affect identity.
Introduction to Literature
What is literature? Why do people write it? Why and how should we read it? This course is a user-friendly introduction to the pleasures of understanding literature. It covers the three major genres of literature—poetry, drama, and prose fiction—drawn mostly from the British and American traditions. It spans the Medieval period to the present day and includes related contemporary forms like graphic novels, TV, and popular music. We’ll read a variety of high-quality texts that help us see the world (and ourselves) in new ways, learn about their contexts and methods, and then talk and maybe argue about what (and how) they mean.