English 366E: Introduction

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Table of Contents: Course Two


Course Description

ENGLISH 366E--Shakespeare Survey II (Individual Studies)--is the second of two courses which together will constitute a full survey of Shakespeare's works.

You will be asked to read and respond to a total of seven plays, chosen to give you experience of the range of Shakespeare's art. Unlike the first course, however, the plays in this course will not be studied in strict chronological order; instead, the principle of organization will focus your attention on a sample of different critical perspectives which can be applied to Shakespeare's works.

To assist you in your understanding and enjoyment of the plays, the course includes both video and audio material. Some of the plays you will study have audiotapes of selected scenes. You will also have access to a range of video performances in the MacPherson Library.

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What is Individual Studies?

This course will have no formal lectures. In their place you will have access to several kinds of learning experiences, from conventional face-to-face tutorials to various kinds of multimedia and computer interaction. It is my hope that you will feel at the end of the course that these ways of looking at Shakespeare will have more than compensated for the absence of lectures.

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How This Course Fits with English 366D

If you have already taken English 366D, you will be able to skip over some material in the early modules, since the courses are designed to be taken in any order. Each course, however, provides specific and unique approaches, and they are designed to complement each other. The plays in each course offer a range of plays from early to mature, but taken together the courses will provide a full survey of Shakespeare's remarkable range. Note that in neither course are the plays studied in strictly chronological order; in each case the course begins with an early play and concludes with a mature play, but they are also presented in groups where different kinds of connections become clear.

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Critical Approaches to Shakespeare

Recent literary exploration and criticism has become more conscious of the way that all readers are conditioned by their specific environment and their individual objectives in reading. If you have already taken English 366D, you will have found that you were invited to look at a number of general theoretical questions about the way the plays can be read, and were shown some ways in which the plays could be interpreted from different perspectives. In Richard II and 1 Henry IV you looked at the way some beliefs in the Renaissance were widely different from our own, and the impact of those differences on an interpretation of the plays. In the discussion of Hamlet (where life has become disordered, an "unweeded garden"), you were asked to think about the difficulty of translating the text of the play from one culture to another--and by extension from one time to another. In the module on King Lear you looked at the problems of the transmission of the physical text--the letters on the page--from the original manuscript(s) of Shakespeare to the modern clean, well-annotated edition. In Othello and Antony and Cleopatra you were invited to look at the way a reinterpretation of gender roles will change our reading of character, and even the structure of a play.

Thus you are well prepared for a discussion not only of the plays themselves, but of ways of looking at the plays. In this course I have chosen three areas of "focus" where differing critical approaches can be both applied and questioned. For each area of focus there will be one or more critical articles set as readings; in addition, you will have the opportunity to put modern approaches in perspective by learning about the kinds of criticism written about Shakespeare in earlier periods, from his own time to the early years of this century.

  Please note: The use of a focus as a principle of organization does not mean that the plays must be understood in any rigid way. I have chosen approaches that have significantly altered our perception of the plays in the last two decades, but you should remember that part of the exercise of understanding different critical approaches is to interrogate them: to test them to see what positive insights they offer and what qualities in the plays they may not open effectively for discussion.

Focus 1: Feminist Approaches to Shakespeare

Feminist scholarship on Shakespeare was pioneered in the mid seventies by scholars like Juliet Diusenberre (Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 1975). From the early eighties there has been a flowering of important books which offered new critical insights, substantial research into attitudes towards women in the period, and more recently the rediscovery of works written by women. (Details will be found in the Bibliography at the end of the Readings for this section.) Recent productions of Shakespeare's plays have been deeply influenced by the new perspectives that feminist critics have brought to the plays.

In the first course in this series, many of the plays provided only marginal or minor roles for women (the history plays, and perhaps Hamlet); only in tragedies that focus specifically on love did women become prominent. In this course you will find that each play has strong representations of females, and in many of them the women occupy a central position in the development of the drama. The first three plays to be studied will offer an opportunity to discuss the insights (and perhaps the limitations) of feminist approaches to the plays. Each has as one major character a woman who is strong enough to be perceived as a threat by at least some of the other men and women in the play: Kate, Hermia, Beatrice. Each play also presents one or more female characters whose presence comments on her stronger sister, rather as Laertes' actions and character comment on Hamlet: Bianca, Helena. And each play depends for much of its dramatic impact on the relationship between the principle couples.

Focus 2: Problems of Historical Perspective: Outsiders

Those who do not fit the norms of society (like Poor Tom in King Lear) are left out in the cold. The two plays in this section of the course deal with subjects that have become far more sensitive since Shakespeare's time: anti-semitism and colonialism. We will discuss strategies for understanding and responding to the changes in attitude that have occurred since the plays were written; in the process we will discuss the underlying question of the nature of historical perception and the different ways in which historical approaches to the plays have sought to interpret them. One of the plays has a major part for a women (Portia), while in The Tempest women seem to be as marginalized as in the earlier history plays; we may find that the discussion of our response to the treatment of women in the plays and Renaissance society has something in common with our response to the outsider.

Focus 3: Genre in Shakespeare

By the end of this section of the course you will be able finally to understand Polonius' long-winded introduction of the traveling players:
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical- historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited; Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light, for the law of writ and the liberty: these are the only men.
(Hamlet 2. 2. 385-90)
Shakespeare's plays were divided by the editors of the First Folio into three genres (history, comedy, tragedy) and since then a fourth (romance or tragi-comedy), and a fifth ("problem" plays) have been added. But we are all aware that his tragedies can at times make us laugh, his comedies move us deeply, and some plays seem to defy categorization. So why categorize? We will explore the nature of audience expectation and the way that Shakespeare experimented with genre in two unusually constructed plays: Measure for Measure (a tragic opening, a sort of comic ending), and The Winter's Tale (the name suggesting a fireside yarn with no rules at all).

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A Table of Contents for the Course

Focus 1: Feminist Approaches

Module 1: The Taming of the Shrew
Readings: two articles illustrating feminist criticism of Shakespeare.

Module 2: A Midsummer Night's Dream
Readings: an exploration of the background of ideas, and Shakespeare's stage.

Module 3: Much Ado About Nothing
Readings: misogyny in early modern literature, and a discussion of editorial influence on the plays.

Focus 2: Problems of Historical Perspectives: Outsiders

Module 4: The Merchant of Venice
Readings: attitudes to Shakespeare from the Renaissance to the Romantics; various critical approaches to The Merchant of Venice.

Module 5: The Tempest
Readings: Renaissance music and the Court masque; The Tempest and colonialism.

Focus 3: Genre in Shakespeare

Module 6: Measure for Measure
Readings: critical approaches of the early twentieth century; the "open" work.

Module 7: The Winter's Tale
Readings: two approaches to The Winter's Tale: psychoanalytic and post-structuralist.

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The Level of Instruction

Since this is an upper-level course in English, you will be expected to read intelligently and to write fluently and accurately. The only formal prerequisite for the course is three units of first year English; if you have not taken English 200 (Survey from Chaucer to the Romantics) or its equivalent, you may find that you have some catching up to do, since the course assumes a basic understanding of the development of English literature to the time of Shakespeare.

It is likely that students in this course will range in background and experience from those who have taken little other than a first year course to fourth-year students who have taken courses on Chaucer and other early literature, and have already studied Shakespeare. One advantage of the fact that this course is offered with the aid of written materials rather than lectures is that you as reader have a greater degree of control over what you need to read thoroughly and what you can skip. The level of expertise I assume, especially in the first modules, is of a student who has taken no more than introductory courses in English. If you are more advanced you can speed-read material you are familiar with. The layout of the written materials, with clear headings to indicate what follows, should allow you to know quickly what you need to take particular note of.

If you have already taken English 366D, the companion course on Shakespeare's histories and tragedies, you will find that you will already have read some introductory materials on the Elizabethan context and staging the plays; you will also find, however, that this course offers a wide range of readings you have not previously encountered.

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The Objectives of This Course

General objectives of the course

  1. To guide you through whatever obstacles may lie in the way of your understanding of Shakespeare's plays so that you may read and reread them with ease and pleasure.
  2. To cultivate your skills of observation, reflection and critical thinking by requiring you to write about what you see and think.

Specific objectives

  1. To explore and explain Shakespeare's text, showing that you can read a modern edition of the plays with sensitivity.
  2. To become aware of the way that modern theoretical approaches can illuminate and challenge the texts.
  3. To be aware of the ways in which different readings and performances of the plays interpret or modify our understanding of the text.
  4. To describe the way that the stage and the physical action on it contribute to your understanding of the plays.
  5. To discuss Shakespeare's characterization, and his use of dramatic structure and convention.
  6. To refer where necessary in your discussion of his plays to the society and the beliefs of his time.
  7. To be aware of the way the texts of the plays have been transmitted to the modern reader.
  8. To discuss Shakespeare's exploration of the great themes of human experience: power, justice, love, death.

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Table of Contents: Course Two


This page last updated on 1 December 2003.

Send queries to Michael Best, English Department, University of Victoria, Victoria B.C. V8W 3W1, Canada.

mbest1@uvic.ca