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The Major Assignment

For this assignment you will be given a choice of two different approaches, neither of which is a conventional critical essay.

Approach #1: Historical context

The objective of the assignment

The aim of the assignment is to assist you in understanding the historical context of Shakespeare's writing, and to understand how an awareness of the context illuminates the plays.

You will be asked to select a topic -- one or more pages -- from the Life and Times website, to expand it by fuller, up-to-date research, and to show how this topic helps you understand one of the plays on the reading list for the course. Here are the steps you must take:

  1. Explore the Life and Times, and choose a topic that you think could be expanded.
  2. Deadline March 2: Email me, or catch me to get approval for the topic: mbest1@uvic.ca.
  3. Carry out your research, using both Library and reputable online sources. Look for illustrative graphics.
  4. Select an issue, a character, or a scene from one of the plays on the reading list for the course, and show how your knowledge of the context has increased your understanding of it.
  5. Submit the essay, complete with Works Cited and Bibliography (including online sources).

Note that lthough there are many references to Shakespeare's plays on the site, there is no extensive discussion of the texts themselves. It is not intended to be a critical discussion of Shakespeare; it is an introduction to what we know of his life, the stage where his plays were first acted, and the various influences--social, political, intellectual, and literary--that lie behind the words on the page.

For your essay, however, I think that it would be best if you split your attention to the historical and critical discussions about 50/50.

What I will be looking for in this assignment

Approach #2: A comparison of two performances

The objective of the assignment

The aim of the assignment is to encourage you to think of the plays both as texts and as performances, and to explore the relationship between the two.

You will be asked to submit a comparative review of two video performances of a play by Shakespeare. You are encouraged to make this a group assignment, working on it with up to three others in the class. If you are unable (or unwilling) to work with others, however, you may submit the assignment on your own.


The focus for this assignment must be on a single scene (preferably a short one) or a single character. In selecting a scene, remember that film will often cut scenes into one another, so you will have to select the equivalent of a single scene even though it may involve more than one.

You will need to learn about basics of the medium you are discussing. If you are comparing a video prepared for television, or based on a stage play, for example, you must consider it within its own conventions; it is neither helpful or insightful to notice that a film will have more interesting on-location filming than a filmed stage performance. I will expect you to be able to comment about camera techniques, how they differ, and what effect this has on the viewer's response in the two performances you are comparing.

You should follow the normal conventions for a research essay at a senior level: I expect a thesis, well-planned paragraphs, and a Works Cited. Please refer to the Department's Writer's Guide for conventions of in-text citation and bibliographical reference.

What I will be looking for in this assignment

The plays on video

The MacPherson Library has a wide selection of performances of Shakespeare's plays, and you may also be able to get some videos from your local video store.

  1. Hamlet
    • Hamlet (1948). Director: Laurence Olivier. PR2807 A2 O55 1988. Black and white film.
      Cast: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Felix Aylmer, Stanley Hollaway.
    • Hamlet (1969). Director: Tony Richardson. PR2807 A2R53. Film.
      Cast: Nicol Williamson, Anthony Hopkins, Marianne Faithfull.
    • Hamlet (1980, BBC). Director: Rodney Bennett. PR2807 A2M4. Made for television.
      Cast: Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom.
    • Hamlet (1990). Director: Franco Zeffirelli. PR2807 A2Z44. Color Film.
      Cast: Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield.
    • Hamlet (1997). Director: Kenneth Branagh. Color Film.
      Cast: Kenneth Branagh and just about everyone who is anyone.
    • Hamlet (2000). Director Michael Almereyda.
      Cast: Ethan Hawke and others.
  2. Macbeth
    • Macbeth (1948) Director: Orson Welles. PR2823 A2W425. Black and white film.
      Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, Dan O'Herlihy, Roddy McDowall.
    • Macbeth (1971). Director: Roman Polanski. PR2823 A2P65. Color film.
      Cast: Jon Finch, Francesca Annis, Martin Shaw.
    • Macbeth (1988, HBO Video). PR2823 A2W34. Made for television.
      Cast: Michael Jayston (Macbeth), Barbara Leigh Hunt (Lady Macbeth), Gary Watson (Macduff), David Weston (Malcolm).
  3. King Lear
    • King Lear (1953). Director: Andrew McCullough.
      Cast: Orson Welles, Natasha Parry.
    • King Lear (1982 BBC). Director: Jonathan Miller. PR2819 A2M56. Made for television.
      Cast: Michael Hordern, Anton Lesser, John Shrapnel.
    • King Lear [1990, from an earlier film]. Director: Peter Brook. PR2819 A2B69. Black and white film.
      Cast: Orson Welles, Arnold Moss, Beatrice Straight, Margaret Phillips.
    • King Lear (1984). Director: Michael Elliot. PR2819 A2E538.
      Cast: Laurence Olivier, Colin Blakely, Anna Calder-Marshall, John Hurt, Jeremy Kemp, Robert Lang, Robert Lindsay, Leo McKern, Diana Rigg, David Threlfall, Dorothy Tutin.

A Short Bibliography of Shakespeare and Film

  1. Buchman, Lorne Michael. Still in Movement: Shakespeare on Screen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. PR3093/B83.
  2. Bulman, J.C., and H.R. Coursen, ed. Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1988. PR3093/S54.
  3. Donaldson, Peter S. Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990. PR3093/D66.
  4. Eckert, Charles W., ed. Focus on Shakespearean Films. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972. PR3093/E25.
  5. Kliman, Bernice W. Hamlet: Film, Television, and Audio Performance. Rutherford N.J: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988. PR2807 K56.

Screenplays of some Shakespeare films are also available.

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This page last updated on 20 October 2006. © Michael Best, 2002.