What you'll learn

  • Appreciate Shakespearean dramaturgy and language

  • Identify historical contexts that illuminate Shakespeare’s artistic choices

  • Explore the implications of different theatrical and performance interpretations

Course description

In the first act of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Ghost of the dead King of Denmark appears to his son, setting off a chain of events that culminates in the play’s notoriously bloody finale. But how would this mysterious figure have been understood in Shakespeare’s world?

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt (John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities) guides learners through an exploration of the Ghost in Hamlet, considering both its uncanny theatrical power and the historical contexts from which it emerged. Learners will be introduced to the narrative sources of Hamlet, the religious convictions that shaped how people in Renaissance England understood the afterlife, and the ways that Shakespeare’s Ghost would have thrilled and challenged its original audience. Learners will also be invited to share their own theatrical interpretations of Hamlet and to consider how the themes of death, mourning, and memory shape Shakespeare’s play as well as their own lives.

Course Outline

Part I. The Ghost in Act One

Introduction to the story of Hamlet and Shakespeare’s dramatic artistry; the play’s narrative sources; the importance of directorial and performance decisions. 

Part II. Ideas of the Afterlife in Shakespeare’s World

Introduction to Hamlet’s historical context; Renaissance conceptions of heaven, hell, and purgatory; Shakespeare’s appropriation of ideas of the afterlife.

 Part III. Beyond Act One

Self-guided reading and reflection; introduction to textual studies.


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