Option 1: Rediscovering Shakespeare

Dr Ben Morgan


It is almost impossible to read Shakespeare without feeling burdened by his cultural status, and the long history of performance and re-reading at whose centre he lies. In this course, we look at how fresh and provocative Shakespeare’s thinking still is, by looking at his radical engagement with the big issues of his age. How did a theatre which was traditionally used to demonstrate religious doctrine, or to entertain with jigs and clowning, reflect an Elizabethan state in religious and political turmoil? How did a writer in an artform as widely denigrated as theatre answer back to the authoritative voices of pulpit and censor? What was modern, fresh and threatening about Shakespeare’s writing in his time? And how did his writing help to shape the culture through which we now read him? Week by week, we will examine Shakespeare’s treatment of the central ethical, political and ideological questions of his age. What will emerge is a sense both of how distant that age was from our own, and how far ahead of us Shakespeare still might be. Each week there will be one hour long lecture, one two-hour seminar, and one tutorial.

Weekly Tutorial & Seminar Programme

Week 1 – Shakespeare’s Morality
We do not think of Shakespeare as a moralist. But the tradition in English drama, stretching back to the fourteenth century, was profoundly moral. Allegorical figures for Vice and Everyman were commonly seen onstage, alongside the now-notorious figure of the Stage Jew. In this tutorial and seminar, we look at Shakespeare’s lively and sceptical engagement with this tradition through the figures of Iago, Shylock and Lear. Iago is based in part on the medieval Vice, Shylock is a development of the Stage Jew, and Lear’s story borrows the robes of a moral tale, but refuses a clear moral outcome. Examining the characters in their own right and alongside short excerpts from medieval drama, will focus on Shakespeare’s opaque or complex treatment of morality. How does drama engage our moral sympathies? Whose side are we supposed to be on? What is the value of a tale without moral clarity? How ‘modern’ a writer is Shakespeare in this regard?

Week Two – Shakespeare and Medicine
The Renaissance age was fascinated by, and sceptical of, doctors, whose book-learning and preference for using leeches and other painful and inefficient cures are commonly satirised. But Renaissance ideas of the sick or well body were also widely influential on the stage, since theatres were always the first places to close down during a plague; their defenders also rested their cases on a view of them as figurative healers, calling forth and expunging negative emotion from their audience. This lecture looks at doctor figures in Shakespeare’s writing, particularly Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well, Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, and the medical language in Twelfth Night. Comparing Shakespeare’s medical language with writing on drama and the body in the period, I ask: what does Shakespeare think drama can do to help or heal its audience? What do we learn about his view of illness, and his view of the theatre, through these figures? I read the plays in the context of excerpts from Renaissance writing about the stage and medicine, slippery categories which, as we will see, often slid into one another.

Week Three – Shakespeare and the State
Shakespeare has variously been represented as a propagandist for the Tudor state and as its most perceptive critic. In this seminar, we will reopen the debate. Looking at Henry V, Richard II and Measure for Measure, we will ask: what is Shakespeare’s view of political power, and its just use? How does he dramatise the relationship between the ideology of a state and the individual who has to run it, a relationship crucial to the notion of monarchy? Is a state, for Shakespeare, the best means through which to accomplish justice? What threatens or undermines the monarchical state, and what alternatives, if any, does he envisage?

Week Four – Shakespeare’s Stage
It is popular nowadays in academic circles to look at Shakespeare as a writer for the theatre, for the ear rather than just the readerly eye. Following on from a trip to Stratford on Avon, we will discuss the relationship between Shakespeare’s texts and the experience of live performance. We will read key scenes from the plays have already read, and view excerpts from live performances and films which correspond with those scenes: for example, from Branagh’s Henry V and Ian McKellen’s more recent performance as King Lear. This will prompt discussion both on the ways in which Shakespeare writes character and the ways in which he writes about place and ideas.

Week Five – Late Shakespeare
What is a late style? What does it tell us about the work at the end of an author’s life, and how does it reflect back on the work that came before? Do Shakespeare’s late plays have a teleology – that is to say, do they show he was going somewhere, had an intellectual or artistic destination (the traditional view)? Or are they something else – an attempt to reconcile with the demands of a changing Jacobean theatre, a theatre that may well have been leaving Shakespeare and his generation of writers behind? This week, we will look at The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, examining the way the plays stage the idea of being, and feeling, (too) late. Events in The Tempest happen after the main action of usurpation and exile, which has to be narrated, a ‘mouldy tale’ or source text for the action. Throughout these plays, characters seek impossible reconciliations, often across generations; the playwright, too, thinks about time and destiny.

Primary Bibliography

All’s Well that Ends Well                            Henry V                                  Richard III         

King Lear                                                       Measure for Measure          The Merchant of Venice

Othello                                                           Romeo and Juliet                  The Tempest                     

Twelfth Night                                                The Winter’s Tale

I recommend the Complete Works produced by Arden, who also do very good play-by-play individual texts, with useful introductions to each play. If this is hard to get hold of, then the Oxford edition (ed. Taylor and Wells) is also excellent. Oxford’s Worlds Classics do-good-play by play editions too.

© Dr Ken Addison, Oxford Academic Summer School Tours Ltd: for 2024

St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford