In this course, we will address the question why, and how, we still read Shakespeare today, four hundred years after his plays were first written and performed. Previous generations of readers, critics, and scholars often credited Shakespeare with peculiar insight into human nature or universal values to explain his enduring popularity. As the existence of an essential human nature and of universal values has come to be questioned or even discredited, the question of what literary works that were produced under circumstances vastly different from those of our own lives can mean to us remains. 'What they can mean to us' can, quite literally, refer to the difficulties we face in understanding older texts that contain vocabulary, cultural references, and concepts that are unfamiliar. On the other hand, it may refer to the question whether or not such texts are still relevant to us, and what it is that makes them relevant.
We will address these questions by reading and discussing two of Shakespeare's plays, King Lear and The Merchant of Venice. We will refresh and build on the basic categories of analysing drama and discuss the differences between Shakespeare's use of 'tragedy' and 'comedy' and contemporary understandings of these terms. We will also address the relationship between text and performance in drama, and the difficulties faced by critics who work with texts that lack a reliable 'original edition'. And, of course, we will debate the way in which historical context affects the production and understanding of a text, as well as the value attributed to it (i.e., its place in the canon), including the role played by race, class, and gender in these processes.
To prepare for the first session, please read Act I, scene 1 of King Lear, using the annotations at the bottom of the page and, if necessary, the dictionary, to ensure you understand the text thoroughly.
We will be using the Arden editions (3rd series) of both texts:
- William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes, London: Bloomsbury, 2009 (ISBN 978-1-903436-59-2).
- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ed. by John Drakakis, London: Bloomsbury, 2010 (ISBN 978-1-903436-81-3).
Important: Please ensure you buy the correct editions, double-check the editors names and ISBN! Some older Arden editions (from the second series) of both plays are still around, but have different annotations and introductions by other editors! As we will be discussing introductions and annotations on the course, you need to ensure you have the right edition.
Additional material will be made available on Stud.IP at the beginning of the semester.