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How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

Professor Marc C. Conner Ph.D.
Washington and Lee University
Course No.  2711
Course No.  2711
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Shakespeare—perhaps the greatest literary artist in history—presents a fundamental paradox to his audience. No other Western writer is so celebrated and revered. His plays are seen, read, and studied throughout the world as models of high culture and timeless art. His best-known characters have become mythic symbols in our culture. His poetry and turns of phrase permeate our spoken language. Shakespeare enjoys near-universal agreement among scholars as well as the general public that his works are among the greatest of humanity’s cultural expressions, and that we all should know and understand them.

But appreciating this greatest of writers does not come easily. Simply put, Shakespeare is difficult. His language and culture—those of Elizabethan England, 400 years ago—are greatly different from our own, and his poetry, thick with metaphorical imagery and double meanings, can be hard to penetrate. His theater and the tools of stagecraft available to him can seem quite distant to us. The motives of his characters and the meanings of his philosophical reflections on politics, religion, society, and human relationships are often complex and challenging to reckon with.

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Shakespeare—perhaps the greatest literary artist in history—presents a fundamental paradox to his audience. No other Western writer is so celebrated and revered. His plays are seen, read, and studied throughout the world as models of high culture and timeless art. His best-known characters have become mythic symbols in our culture. His poetry and turns of phrase permeate our spoken language. Shakespeare enjoys near-universal agreement among scholars as well as the general public that his works are among the greatest of humanity’s cultural expressions, and that we all should know and understand them.

But appreciating this greatest of writers does not come easily. Simply put, Shakespeare is difficult. His language and culture—those of Elizabethan England, 400 years ago—are greatly different from our own, and his poetry, thick with metaphorical imagery and double meanings, can be hard to penetrate. His theater and the tools of stagecraft available to him can seem quite distant to us. The motives of his characters and the meanings of his philosophical reflections on politics, religion, society, and human relationships are often complex and challenging to reckon with.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the keys to understanding Shakespeare are written into the plays themselves. If you can learn to recognize Shakespeare’s own directions to you as a reader and theatergoer—the clues that allow you to engage meaningfully with the playwright’s language, to follow the plot structures and themes that drive his plays, and to track the development of his characters—the plays reveal themselves and become yours for a lifetime of pleasure and meaning.

How, then, do you find these keys to Shakespeare? What are the clues that allow you to truly “get” his great plays—to intimately appreciate their sublime poetry, deeper meanings, and human greatness? 

How to Read and Understand Shakespeare, taught by award-winning Professor Marc C. Conner of Washington and Lee University, offers compelling answers to these questions and more, guiding you in an innovative and penetrating exploration of Shakespeare’s plays. He shows you in clear, practical terms how to enter Shakespeare’s dramatic world, to grasp what’s happening in any of his plays, and to enjoy them fully both on the page and the stage.

Interpreting Dramatic Genius

Under Professor Conner’s expert guidance, shaped by decades of studying and performing Shakespeare, you learn a set of interpretive tools, drawn from the texts themselves, that give you direct, immediate insight into Shakespeare’s plays. These guiding principles allow you to follow the narratives of the plays as they unfold, with a clear understanding of how the plays function and fit together. Among them, you learn that Shakespeare’s comedies follow a three-part structure, beginning with a block to love, followed by an escape and a testing of the characters, and ending with a return and reconciliation.

You learn corresponding principles and tools for appreciating his tragedies, histories, and late romances, in an inquiry covering two-thirds of Shakespeare’s dramatic work, including a detailed study of 12 of his greatest plays.

The rewards of the course are both immediate and lifelong—empowering you to grasp the richness and subtlety of Shakespeare’s glorious language, the astounding power of his storytelling, the unforgettable characters that populate the plays, and his visionary insight into the human heart and spirit. These 24 revealing lectures provide the tools that allow you to understand and mine the riches of any Shakespeare play.   

Discover the Keys to Shakespeare’s World

Across the span of the lectures, you learn more than 40 interpretive tools that illuminate different aspects of the plays, including these:

  • The Words, Words, Words tool: The most fundamental tool for appreciating Shakespeare. Study the text of Romeo and Juliet, as well as major speeches from many other plays, to uncover and appreciate Shakespeare’s “registers” of language, his use of poetic forms, and his richly metaphorical and symbolic use of English.
  • The Double-Plot tool: In examples ranging from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry IV, Part 1 to The Tempest, see how Shakespeare—in virtually every play—uses the theatrical device of a high (upper-class) plot, contrasted with a low (lower-class) storyline that mirrors or comments on the high plot.
  • The Appearance versus Reality tool: A vital principle for all of Shakespeare’s plays.  Highlighting figures including Viola in Twelfth Night, Angelo in Measure for Measure,and Macbeth, Professor Conner shows how Shakespeare’s character-driven narratives hinge on the need to distinguish external appearance from internal reality.
  • The Drama of Ideas tool: Throughout the course, witness how Shakespeare’s plays are filled with serious contemplation of the great questions of philosophy, religion, and politics, as seen in the core theological issues at work in Hamlet, or the ways in which  Richard II questions the nature of kingship.
  • The Decisive Third Act tool: As a highly useful structural key, learn to pay close attention to the decisive third act of a Shakespeare play, and see, in The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, and others, how the third act functions as a pivot point on which the action shifts decisively and the play’s direction is determined.
  • The Arc of Character tool: Observe how Shakespeare’s main characters, from Portia and Hamlet to Falstaff and Lady Macbeth, follow a line of development over the course of a play, such as a movement from ignorance to knowledge, a psychological rise or fall, or an altering of the character’s external role within the story.

Engage with Shakespeare’s Deepest Meanings

As a core strength of Professor Conner’s approach, the interpretive tools bring you into direct contact with the ultimate ends that the plays serve. Critically, you find that one of Shakespeare’s most seminal, underlying themes is that of self-transformation—that while his great comic characters reveal the capacity to reformulate their identities and to balance extreme desires, his tragic plays concern the failure to achieve balance and wisdom.

Through an in-depth study of Measure for Measure, you contemplate Shakespeare’s “problem plays”—those that seem to be neither comedies nor true tragedies—and the significance of these unusual works in his dramatic cycle. Finally, with The Tempest you discover the world of the playwright’s “late romances,” which poignantly reveal his thematic concern with forgiveness, reconciliation, and regeneration.  

Drawing on nearly 20 years of teaching Shakespeare, including both literature and drama courses, as well as extensive experience in directing and acting Shakespeare, Professor Conner also reveals fascinating details of the playwright’s era, which shed further light on the plays and on the way his audiences perceived them—aided by archival illustrations, paintings, and maps of Elizabethan London. You learn about the colorful, raucous world of the theater in Shakespeare’s time, how his contemporaries conceived of history, and about the surprising Elizabethan customs of courtship and marriage that help explain Shakespeare’s comic plots.

Enjoy These Great Plays for a Lifetime

For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s plays have enthralled, moved, and enriched each new generation of readers and theatergoers. How to Read and Understand Shakespeare builds the skills that allow you to reach your own understanding of the plays—to deeply comprehend Shakespeare’s transcendent poetic language, the spellbinding world of his great characters and stories, and his revelatory reflections on human experience. The tools you learn are yours for years of enjoyment of these monumental treasures of our culture.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Approaching Shakespeare—The Scene Begins
    Consider four points of entry for understanding what’s happening in a Shakespeare play. Learn how to approach a single dramatic scene, focusing on Shakespeare’s richly metaphorical use of language. Begin to grasp the playwright’s use of stagecraft, and how his plays require your own active participation and powers of imagination. x
  • 2
    Shakespeare’s Theater and Stagecraft
    Here, envision theatrical London as it existed in Shakespeare’s time. First, consider Shakespeare’s fundamental intent to “hold the mirror up to nature”—to imitate the living world. Then learn about the colorful milieu of Elizabethan theater; its conventions of physical space, scenery, and costumes; and how the playwright created theatrical “reality” through language. x
  • 3
    A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Comic Tools
    In his comedic plays, Shakespeare drew on the classical Roman model of comedy. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, see how he expands the form, using the archetypal plot devices of “blocked love,” its resolution at either the altar or the grave, and the escape from urban life to the magical world of the forest. x
  • 4
    A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Comic Structure
    This lecture explores key principles for understanding and appreciating Shakespeare’s comedies. Grasp the thematic elements of a shift from friendship to romantic love and of severe testing of the characters. See how the three-part structure of the comedies leads inevitably to reconciliation and regeneration. x
  • 5
    Romeo and Juliet—Words, Words, Words
    Shakespeare’s primary tool as a playwright is words themselves as dramatic expressions of character and meaning. In Romeo and Juliet, see how Shakespeare ingeniously uses language to distinguish class and personality, and how he uses the poetic form of the sonnet in creating a sublime language of love. x
  • 6
    Romeo and Juliet—The Tools of Tragedy
    Continuing with Romeo and Juliet, observe how the famous balcony scene shifts the action and sense of the play toward a new kind of character-driven tragedy. In the play’s unfolding, note the role of the tension between fate and free will, and the arc of development whereby Juliet becomes a great tragic figure. x
  • 7
    Appearance versus Reality in Twelfth Night
    As one of his outstanding “mature” comedies, Twelfth Night reveals themes and elements that are keys to all of Shakespeare’s plays. Discover how the comedy revolves around crises of identity, the need to distinguish external appearance from internal reality, and a reversal of power roles x
  • 8
    Twelfth Night—More Comic Tools
    In Shakespeare’s encompassing vision of Twelfth Night, observe how the young characters’ movement toward self-knowledge and mutual love contrasts with plot elements of isolation and rejection. See how the remarkable heroine Viola, a figure of grace, acts as an agent of redemption for the entire world of the play. x
  • 9
    Richard II—History and Kingship
    In his history plays, Shakespeare addresses profound issues of politics, philosophy, and religion. In Richard II, engage with core thematic elements that drive the history plays: the question of the “divine right” of kingship, the larger meanings of historical events, and the conflict between brothers—an emblem for civil war x
  • 10
    Politics as Theater in Henry IV, Part I
    Here, the dynamic of appearance versus reality illuminates the making of a king. In the dual world of the Court and the Tavern, witness Shakespeare’s use of theatrical role-playing to reveal Prince Hal and Falstaff to themselves, and grasp how Hal’s journey to kingship takes on the nature of a calculated “performance.” x
  • 11
    Henry IV, Part 2—Contrast and Complexity
    As an interpretive tool, define Part 2’s stark differences with the preceding play, noting its shifting depictions of courage and honor, and its characters’ reversals of fortune. Follow Prince Hal’s dramatic metamorphosis as he assumes the throne, disavowing the dissolute life he lived and embracing the course of justice and order. x
  • 12
    The Drama of Ideas in Henry V
    In plumbing the riches of one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays, assess Henry’s ambiguous relation to God as he manipulates faith and religion to his political ends. Grasp also how Henry employs the dynamics of theater, brilliantly “staging” each of his critical actions, and how he defeats the expectations of his French foes. x
  • 13
    Macbeth—“Foul and Fair”
    In Macbeth, Shakespeare reveals a world in which everything becomes its opposite. Study how reversals of reality and meaning dominate the play, seen vividly in the recurring dynamic of betrayal and the politically charged tension between appearance and reality. See how the playwright uses “comic relief” to ultimately heighten the horror you’ve witnessed x
  • 14
    The Tragic Woman in Macbeth
    Shakespeare’s great tragic women are central to the functioning of his tragedies. Here, encounter the powerful figure of Lady Macbeth and observe how her arc of development as a character inversely mirrors her husband’s. Grasp how Macbeth poignantly sounds the depths of meaninglessness as he confronts the abyss of his own making. x
  • 15
    Staging Hamlet
    Discover how Hamlet’s opening scene reveals many of the crucial themes of the play. Then delve into the use of acting as a major dynamic of the story, as Hamlet ultimately takes action through the devices of theater, staging a play to determine the course of his own fate. x
  • 16
    The Religious Drama of Hamlet
    A deep look at the religious and theological issues at work in Hamlet unlocks the meanings in Shakespeare’s most celebrated play. Study three important moments of religious contemplation within the play, and see how Hamlet’s hesitance to avenge his father’s murder is enmeshed with his foreboding sense of the afterlife. x
  • 17
    The Women of Hamlet
    Two crucial women illuminate the core themes and dynamics of Hamlet. Grasp how Gertrude, who speaks only in moderation, compellingly underlines the issues of loyalty and betrayal that drive the story, and how Ophelia, torn between irreconcilable male figures, becomes a sacrifice to the tragic forces of the play. x
  • 18
    The Merchant of Venice—Comedy or Tragedy?
    In this extraordinary play, Shakespeare explores the dark undercurrents of comedy to the fullest. Delve into the crisis of identity that each character faces, the theme of perilous risk, and the plot elements of loss and sacrifice that work against the play’s comic structure. x
  • 19
    The Arc of Character in The Merchant of Venice
    Begin this lecture by tracing the historical background of Judaism in Elizabethan London, and how the portrayal of Shylock conforms to contemporary conventions of comic villains. Then see how Shakespeare breaks free of the stereotypes of his time, developing the character and the play as a penetrating meditation on justice and mercy. x
  • 20
    Measure for Measure—Is This Comedy?
    With Measure for Measure, you enter the world of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”—dramas that seem neither truly comic nor tragic. Here, observe how Shakespeare creates Vienna, the play’s setting, as a place of hypocrisy, deception, and trickery, where nothing is what it seems and all the tenets of comedy are subverted. x
  • 21
    Measure for Measure—Overcoming Tragedy
    This lecture uses the interpretive tools of both comedy and tragedy to mine the deeper meanings of Measure for Measure. Study how the playwright treats plot elements and character relationships that show the hallmarks of tragedy, finally overturning them in a surprising and transformative resolution of the story x
  • 22
    Tools of Romance in The Tempest
    At the end of his career, Shakespeare developed the form of drama known as his Late Romances. Here, learn how The Tempest exemplifies the three-part structure of the Romances, as the magical figure Prospero “stages” a series of trials for the shipwrecked characters, leading them through suffering to ultimate reconciliation. x
  • 23
    The Tempest—Shakespeare’s Farewell to Art
    Begin this lecture by investigating the spiritual significance of The Tempest’s island setting as a testing ground for humanity’s nobler nature. Then grasp how Shakespeare seems to speak directly to us through the figure of Prospero, whose final renunciation of his magical art mirrors Shakespeare’s own farewell to playwriting. x
  • 24
    The Tools for a Lifetime of Shakespeare
    The many interpretive tools you’ve studied leave you with the ability to engage meaningfully with any Shakespeare play. In concluding, look at three plays you have not yet studied in detail—Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It—and see how the tools allow you to directly appreciate their structures, devices, and deeper meanings. x

Lecture Titles

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Marc C. Conner
Ph.D. Marc C. Conner
Washington and Lee University

Dr. Marc C. Conner is the Jo M. and James M. Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Professor Conner earned his bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy at the University of Washington and his master's and doctoral degrees in English literature at Princeton University. At Washington and Lee, Professor Conner received the Anece F. McCloud Excellence in Diversity Award in 2009 and the Outstanding Teacher Award in 2004. In 2005, he restructured the department's introductory Shakespeare course into a dynamic and interactive seminar on Shakespeare as both poet and playwright, emphasizing the dramatic elements in the plays and producing an annual Shakespeare play performed by students. Professor Conner teaches a regular course on performing Shakespeare and has taught and lectured on Shakespeare to a variety of audiences. A dedicated advocate of global study, he created the Spring Term in Ireland Program, which he has directed six times, taking students to Ireland to experience Irish literature, culture, and history. With a scholarly focus on 20th- and 21st-century narrative and poetry in several national traditions, he has edited or coedited four books and has published more than 40 essays, articles, and reviews.

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Reviews

Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 20 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by A New Favorite Professor Professor Marc Conner has made Shakespeare so accessible I have dusted off "The Complete Oxford Shakespeare" a gift from my mother 25 years ago. He joins William Cook, J. Rufus Fears, Robert Greenberg, Stephen Ressler and Robert Garland on my list of Great Courses excellent professors. October 7, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Idolatry over substance I bought this course as a homeschooling mother to teenagers. After doing the heavy lifting with Sophocles' three tragedies, I wanted some help with Shakespeare. This course isn't that help. There is no doubt at all that Professor Conner adores Shakespeare but, sadly, that isn't enough. People, "Words, Words, Words" isn't a tool, it's an observation. Shakespeare used words? Really? Who knew? You want a "tool"? How about his use of similarly-spelt words within a single sentence? The moment you come across such a line, you know that there's a barb there, just waiting to be found. Take Hamlet, when his uncle calls to him in Scene 1. King: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son-- Hamlet: A little more than kin, and less than kind. Ouch! "Kin" and "kind" show the kind of wordplay that characterises Shakespeare and which is used to deliver verbal stings. *That* is a tool. You want another tool? The use of contradictions to mock or emphasise. The moment a character uses two opposite characteristics in quick succession, or reacts to a statement with a contradiction, that should draw attention to some deeper observation. Yet another "tool" Shakespeare used to heighten interaction with the audience was the use of puns. It's a hint as to what is playing out on stage, most notably a coy look to the crowd, or the barest of pauses, when a particularly witty one is used. In the handful of lectures we managed to endure, I also picked up mispronunciations. "more, and mores" isn't pronounced "more, and mores". It's pronounced "more, and [morays]", meaning "more, and customs". Good grief, I only studied Shakespeare to British secondary school level several decades ago and *I* can pick these up? (And if you say, "well, you must have had a good teacher", then you're making my point for me.) Where's the initial placement of Shakespeare within his contemporary society? Where's the discussion of Shakespearean stagecraft, without which you cannot begin to understand the dynamics between audience and players that drove much of his wordplay? Drama is interactive. The pauses matter as much as the words themselves. You don't breeze through an excerpt as if you're attempting a land speed record. You pause, you ponder, you accentuate some phrases, deliver others casually. Sadly, what little we saw was bereft of any such subtlety, any such nuance. We returned the course with alacrity. October 6, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Best Shakespeare Ever I have purchased MANY courses from you and slogged through two others on Shakespeare. Dr Connor's course on How to read and Understand Shakespeare is just Wonderful. If there were others by him I would buy them today and I have already recommended this one to friends. Please ask him do more someday. September 19, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by MORE CONNER COURSES PLEASE!!! We're big consumers of the Great Course lectures - and Conner is the BEST on Shakespeare - the BEST! So much depth and intelligence in his analysis. MORE lectures Professor Conner - please! July 22, 2014
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