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.