What you'll learn

  • The cultural significance of Shakespeare's plays and their performance

  • How Shakespeare’s work was considered in his own time and in the present, in his own country and around the world

  • Different approaches to textual interpretation

  • How to consider authorial intention, historical context, and present relevance

  • How to analyze Shakespeare's plays on the page and in performance

  • Foundational knowledge on Shakespeare that can be applied to his specific works

Course description

How do we read Shakespeare? Do his plays belong to the past or the present? To a famed dramatic genius or to readers and audiences around the globe? What do his plays really mean?

Moving between the world in which Shakespeare lived and the present day, this course will introduce different kinds of literary analysis that you can use when reading Shakespeare. With short videos filmed on location in England and readings covering topics like Shakespeare's contemporaries and the politics of modern performance, you will learn a range of critical tools that you can use to unlock the meaning and relevance of Shakespeare’s plays.

Join us as we visit Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born in 1564; London, the lively city where he began as an actor; and the Globe Theater, where his first plays were performed. This journey through Shakespeare’s life will transport you to another era and will give you a new perspective on his timeless work.

Course Outline

Biographical interpretation

By the end of this unit, you will be able to:

  • Describe Shakespeare's childhood, education, and family life, determining how the facts of his life might have informed his playwriting.
  • Evaluate different viewpoints on the "author problem," which relates to how relevant the author and his/her intentions are to interpreting a text.
  • Generate an original interpretation of The Comedy of Errors that relates to Shakespeare's life and/or intentions.

Historical interpretation

In this unit, we’ll focus on historical interpretation by placing Shakespeare’s texts in their historical context.

By the end of this unit, you will be able to:

  • Describe Shakespeare's unlikely entry to the theater world, as well as the facts of London, the Bankside, and the increasingly professionalized theater industry.
  • Assess the view that Shakespeare's plays are embedded in their time and so require historical analysis to unlock what they "mean".
  • Analyze a Shakespeare play or passage through knowledge of historical context.

Presentist interpretation

In this unit, we’ll cover presentist interpretation--what can we reveal about Shakespeare’s plays by placing them in a modern context? 

  • By the end of this unit, you will be able to:
  • Describe original performance practices, Shakespeare's death, and his legacy.
  • Analyze a Shakespearean scene in performance, contrasting different approaches.
  • Evaluate the viewpoint that Shakespeare's plays belong to the present and that we should interpret/perform them as they are most "relevant" now.


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