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Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies

Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies

Professor Peter Saccio Ph.D.
Dartmouth College
Course No.  280
Course No.  280
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

There is no more important author in Western literature than William Shakespeare. And his plays—whether a comedy like A Midsummer Night's Dream; a history like Henry IV; or a tragedy like Hamlet—are treasure troves of insight into our very humanity. Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, Tragedies introduces you to Shakespeare's plays and explains the achievement that makes Shakespeare the leading playwright in Western civilization. The key to that achievement is his "abundance," says Professor Saccio—not only in the number and length of his plays, but also in the variety of experiences they depict, the multitude of actions and characters they contain, the combination of public and private life they deal with, the richness of feelings they express and can provoke in an audience and in readers, and the fullness of language and suggestion.

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There is no more important author in Western literature than William Shakespeare. And his plays—whether a comedy like A Midsummer Night's Dream; a history like Henry IV; or a tragedy like Hamlet—are treasure troves of insight into our very humanity. Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, Tragedies introduces you to Shakespeare's plays and explains the achievement that makes Shakespeare the leading playwright in Western civilization. The key to that achievement is his "abundance," says Professor Saccio—not only in the number and length of his plays, but also in the variety of experiences they depict, the multitude of actions and characters they contain, the combination of public and private life they deal with, the richness of feelings they express and can provoke in an audience and in readers, and the fullness of language and suggestion.

Introduction: Lectures 1 and 2

The first two lectures consider how Shakespeare's plays have been valued by four centuries of readers, and how they have been interpreted and reinterpreted by the generations who have read and seen them.

The lectures also consider the kind of theater for which he wrote, the characteristic structures of his plays, and the way the plays easily mingle events from different realms: different social levels, different levels of realism, and different metaphysical contexts.

The course then considers the plays in terms of genre.

Four Comedies: Lectures 3–10

Twelfth Night offers an example of Shakespearean comic structure and subject: courtship. Renaissance courtship practices are discussed, with their implications about the place of romantic love in our lives. Shakespeare also includes in his survey of lovers Malvolio the ambitious steward, for whom courtship is a means of social advancement.

The Taming of the Shrew provides a somewhat realistic look at bourgeois marriage customs and the place of a strong woman in a patriarchal society. It shows Shakespeare experimenting with an unusually sharp collision of romance and farce.

The Merchant of Venice employs a particularly lofty form of romantic idealism in the courtship plot, but it confronts that idealism with the problematic, possibly tragic character of Shylock, who has forced generations of actors into reinterpreting Shakespeare.

Measure for Measure shows Shakespeare on the verge of breaking out of comic conventions altogether. The characters marry at the end, as is customary, but the route to their unions is a gritty path entailing near-rape and near-execution via the courtrooms and the sexual underground of a corrupt modern society.

Five Histories: Lectures 11–18

Richard III is followed through the arc of his villainous and entertaining career.

Richard II raises constitutional problems that vex us still: What can be done with a ruler who is undoubtedly entitled to rule and is also damaging the realm?

The two plays named after Henry IV show Shakespeare's widest scope in depicting the realm of England from throne room to tavern to countryside, and they introduce Shakespeare's most remarkable comic creation, Falstaff.

In Henry V, Shakespeare kills Falstaff in a scene of extraordinary artistic skill and emotional effect, and then takes the king to a military victory that still arouses all our conflicted convictions about the morality of warfare.

Seven Tragedies: Lectures 19–36

The lectures show Shakespeare taking Romeo and Juliet, who should be the leading pair of lovers in a comedy, and plunging their private bliss into the public violence of a city torn by feud.

Why ancient Rome was important to Shakespeare (and to the Renaissance as a whole) is explored in two lectures on Julius Caesar.

Two lectures on Troilus and Cressida show Shakespeare rewriting Homer into a bitter satire on vainglorious men and unfaithful women.

Finally, three lectures apiece are devoted to each of the four greatest tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. As the richness of each play is explored, emphasis falls on the scope of the tragic effect: Shakespeare's acute development of the inner consciousness in his tragic soliloquies is placed within the far-ranging philosophical and theological implications.

Professor Saccio is a trained actor. He performed the Shakespearean roles of Casca, Angelo, Bassanio, and Henry IV, and directed productions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Cymbeline.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Shakespeare Then and Now
    Shakespeare's plays moved audiences in his own time, and have proved enormously stimulating and useful to subsequent generations. Many have found Shakespeare valuable for a wide array of purposes over the years, reinterpreting him variously, even to the point of denying his authorship of the plays that bear his name. x
  • 2
    The Nature of Shakespeare's Plays
    Shakespeare was not a solitary genius, but a consummate theatre professional. In more ways than one, his plays are remarkable for their sheer "abundance." They boast a wealth of structural elements, and draw on many sources. They set unforgettable characters in motion against broad social and metaphysical backgrounds. And they mingle the fanciful with the realistic, and the comic with the tragic, in ways that challenge the normal boundaries between genres. x
  • 3
    Twelfth Night—Shakespearean Comedy
    For Shakespeare, romantic love is both foolish and wonderful. It often makes us look and act silly. Yet at its best, it moves us to reject self-absorption and share our God-given gifts in a spirit of generosity. How does Shakespeare use—and, at times contest—the conversions of romantic comedy as he pursues this vision? x
  • 4
    Twelfth Night—Malvolio in Love
    The steward Malvolio (whose name alone says much) stands outside the play's two main sets of characters. And there he remains at the conclusion, as Shakespeare refuses to fold him into the larger happy ending. Faults and all, he is the "odd man out" who makes Twelfth Night a comedy with a definite bite. x
  • 5
    The Taming of the Shrew—Getting Married in the 1590s
    Does The Taming of the Shrew advocate male supremacy in marriage? Is its portrayal of late 16th-century courtship customs a realistic one? What do modern productions (and modern playgoers) make of the play's most overt doctrinal statement about marriage, Kate's wedding-reception address? x
  • 6
    The Taming of the Shrew—Farce and Romance
    In this early comedy, Shakespeare adventurously combines romance with farce. Some critics look askance at this, but Shakespeare's use of "game" may be at once more "earnest" and more playful than they suspect. x
  • 7
    The Merchant of Venice—Courting the Heiress
    The Merchant of Venice is loaded with unlikely story lines, which raises a question about the significance of fairy-tale plots for human experience. Perhaps an answer lies in Shakespeare's use of one such fairy-tale element—the casket test set for Portia's suitors demanded by her father's will—to reveal nuances of character. x
  • 8
    The Merchant of Venice—Shylock
    Is Shylock a fairy-tale villain? We examine the tripartite stereotype that underlies the character, and consider how great actors have played him from the 17th century to the present. Might it be that his most famous speech, with its vengeful logic, in fact implicates all of us? x
  • 9
    Measure for Measure—Sex in Society
    At first glance, this play appears to be a conventional comedy, but it turns out to have a plot of unusual intricacy involving sorely troubled characters, and its portrayal of human sexuality is unsettling. Desire, instead of being romantic or lighthearted, here leads to self-hatred and uncharitableness. x
  • 10
    Measure for Measure—Justice and Comedy
    As the curtain comes down on the (in some cases) contrived and unpromising marriages that end this "problem comedy," we are forced to wonder: Is comedy itself a problem? Even in the hands of a Shakespeare, can it contain the stresses of the human condition? x
  • 11
    Richard III—Shakespearean History
    Shakespeare's histories belong to a category of plays that is unfamiliar to us, but which was important and popular in his day. Shakespeare was especially ambitious in this genre, in which he so brilliantly interweaves the "public" and "private" aspects of persons and events. Why does Richard III, of all the history plays, contain such a weight and richness of historical detail? x
  • 12
    Richard III—The Villain's Career
    Despite the length and detail of Richard III, a firm structure dominates. At the heart of the action is the titular villain. His aides amuse us and make us his confidants, sharers in his sense of superiority over his victims. Yet Richard's crimes mount to the point where we no longer can or will identify with him. On his final night their enormity at last hits him, and this master of asides develops a genuine inner voice, a conscience. In the process, the Shakespearean soliloquy begins to take shape. x
  • 13
    Richard II—The Theory of Kingship
    Elizabethan political theory held that the monarch is God's anointed; disobedience and rebellion are grievous sins and invite divine wrath. Richard is the legitimate king, yet Bolingbroke appears to be the abler ruler. What is more to blame for Bolingbroke's challenge to Richard: The former's temerity or the latter's inadequacies? And can a rebel terminate the damage done by an erring (yet lawful) king only at the cost of damaging the realm even further? x
  • 14
    Richard II—The Fall of the King
    Although a crucial character, Bolingbroke is opaque. We cannot be sure when and why he decides to reach for the crown. Richard, on the other hand, is eloquently self-expressive: Shakespeare gives him beautiful and evocative speeches. Where does the power of Richard's language come from? How does it manifest his character? Does it evoke sympathy—or irritation? Does Richard ever move beyond the limits of self-dramatization toward true self-knowledge? x
  • 15
    Henry IV—All the King's Men
    The two plays named after Henry IV constitute the most diverse accomplishment by any Western playwright in the staging of history. This lecture summarizes the political narrative of the plays, and stresses how the triangle of King Henry, Hotspur, and Falstaff provide a context for the central figure of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne. x
  • 16
    Henry IV—The Life of Falstaff
    This lecture traces the theatrical "ancestry" of Falstaff, who in Shakespeare's version becomes the bringer of holiday, the prime subverter of the conventional, serious view of things. Against him is set his friend Prince Hal, the ruler-to-be who must decide what to do about Falstaff, the lord of misrule. x
  • 17
    Henry V—The Death of Falstaff
    This scene in Act 2 of Henry V echoes with an amazingly rich array of emotional resonances and allusions. Shakespeare imagined a finely detailed scene full of mixed and complex feelings, any one of which can reasonably be highlighted in a particular production on reading. Shakespeare does with words what Michelangelo did with paint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. x
  • 18
    Henry V—The King Victorious
    The contemporary response to Henry V has both continued an earlier celebratory tradition and paired it with a modern distrust of war and politicians. The play offers some support for both of these opposed interpretations, but such a binary view is too simple. x
  • 19
    Romeo and Juliet—Shakespearean Tragedy
    In Shakespeare's time, the word "tragedy" was used loosely to mean any story about calamity, especially a fall from a high place. Shakespeare creates many kinds of tragic effects and leaves his characters free to seek the meaning of their own lives. The special characteristic of Romeo and Juliet lies in the derivation of a situation usually used in comedy: young lovers attempting to escape the barriers put up by unsympathetic parents and a hostile society. x
  • 20
    Romeo and Juliet—Public Violence and Private Bliss
    Romeo and Juliet is especially remarkable for its structure and its poetry. The story is organized around three large scenes, and moves at a pace that matches the violence of the actions and emotions. With a special form of lyric poetry, Shakespeare creates for his young lovers a space set apart from quarrelling Verona and dedicated to an ideal love. x
  • 21
    Troilus and Cressida—Ancient Epic in a New Mode
    Handling source material from Homer and the Middle Ages, Shakespeare sharply qualifies its heroism and romance with bleak realism, and even flippant cynicism. We examine the speeches of Ulysses, the posturing of Achilles, the scurrilousness of Therisites, and the brief but telling presentation of Helen of Troy. x
  • 22
    Troilus and Cressida—Heroic Aspirations
    Troilus and Cressida continues with a detailed examination of Cressida and Hector. Cressida loves Troilus and wishes to be faithful to him; circumstances also make her reliant upon men and the power of men for her value. Hector, Troy's main defender, is thoughtful about the values at stake in the war, and caught in some of the inner contradictions of chivalry. The play might end with a conventional tragic close, but the epilogue of Pandarus shifts the tone radically. x
  • 23
    Julius Caesar—The Matter of Rome
    This play holds a special place in modern culture because of its frequent assignment in schools. It also had a special status for Shakespeare, both because of its timing in his career and because of the prestige ancient Rome held for the Renaissance. His chief source, Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, was a work he handled with respect. x
  • 24
    Julius Caesar—Heroes of History
    The characters in Julius Caesar see themselves as actors in history, and often speak and behave in an appropriate lofty and ceremonial fashion. The ceremonies, however, are sometimes qualified by other deceremonializing effects. Caesar, Cassius, and Brutus each display a complex mixture of traits that make him uniquely admirable—and uniquely flawed. x
  • 25
    Hamlet—The Abundance of the Play
    What makes Hamlet a classic? Is it the mixture of familiarity and strangeness that makes us see an "old thing made new"? Is it the range of characters and actions, the variety of the hero's traits, or the cunning articulation of events within the narrative? Is it the way Hamlet calls up "thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls"? x
  • 26
    Hamlet—The Causes of Tragedy
    The characters in Hamlet are remarkably thoughtful. Indeed, Hamlet himself is the only Shakespearean hero whose university we know, and he himself explores theories about the causes of tragedy posed, respectively, by Aristotle, Boethius, and the prophet Isaiah. x
  • 27
    Hamlet—The Protestant Hero
    Hamlet is a compellingly abundant figure. He unforgettably embodies the perennial variety and problems of young manhood as well as the wit, attainments, and lofty ideals embraced by the Renaissance. And as if that were not enough, he also dramatizes the profound spiritual and intellectual problems raised by the Protestant Reformation. x
  • 28
    Othello—The Design of the Tragedy
    What makes Othello unique among Shakespeare's tragedies? For one thing, it's almost two plays in one—a romantic comedy that turns into a tragedy. Certainly this cannot be said of Hamlet, Lear, or Macbeth! We see Shakespeare at work here with his usual abundant genius, transforming genre to achieve dramatic effect. x
  • 29
    Othello—“O Villainy!”
    What motivates Iago? Is he rational or irrational? Does his wickedness somehow transcend all its possible motives? Shakespeare is a dramatist, not a solver of abstract intellectual puzzles. But what we see makes us wonder: What is the cause of evil? x
  • 30
    Othello—“The Noble Moor”
    Othello differs from the other great tragedies in many ways, not least in its lead character. Comparing Othello with Hamlet is highly revealing, as is asking why Othello deserves his sobriquet as "the noble Moor." x
  • 31
    King Lear—“This Is the Worst”
    Lear is a towering work, a tragedy in any sense of the word, a moving—even brutal—experience to read or watch. It is a complex play, with double plots, intrigue, psychological depth, and physical and emotional horror. It is a play about disintegration, about human lives and worlds coming apart—socially, psychologically, emotionally, physically. x
  • 32
    King Lear—Wisdom Through Suffering
    The title of this lecture derives from The Agamemnon of Aeschylus. There is immense suffering in both plays, and from this comes wisdom for the characters and the spectators as well. Thus we turn from "disintegration" to "coping" and particularly coping that leads to insight and self-recognition. x
  • 33
    King Lear—“Then We Go On”
    By the middle of the play, the characters have, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Beckett, fallen "far from help." How do they face adversity? As an unparalleled play of the human condition, Lear provides us with the full panoply of situations, emotions, and lessons. x
  • 34
    Macbeth—“Fair Is Foul”
    Like Shakespeare's other great tragedies, Macbeth explores timeless themes such as cosmic and human order and the nature of good and evil. There are also questions of religious significance (for example, free will versus predestination) embedded in the play, as we would expect in the post-Reformation world in which Shakespeare worked. x
  • 35
    Macbeth—Musing on Murder
    Macbeth's soliloquy or interior monologue on the idea of murdering King Duncan puts us inside Macbeth's thoughts. Through this and other uses of the soliloquy, Shakespeare is able to develop several perspectives for his audience to consider as the play progresses. x
  • 36
    Macbeth—“Enter Two Murderers”
    In this final lecture, we continue with Lady Macbeth, whose case is every bit as interesting, complex, and compelling as her husband's—if not more so. We explore the sexual undercurrents and overtones of their relationship and look into the realm of "imagination" as we analyze this most searching Shakespearean portrayal of human self-destructiveness. x

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Peter Saccio
Ph.D. Peter Saccio
Dartmouth College

Dr. Peter Saccio is Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies and Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College. He also served as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University and at University College in London. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

At Dartmouth, Professor Saccio was honored with the J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching.

Professor Saccio is the author of Shakespeare’s English Kings, which has become a classic in its field. He is also the editor of Thomas Middleton’s comedy A Mad World, My Masters, for the Oxford Complete Works of Thomas Middleton.

Professor Saccio is also an accomplished actor and theatrical director. He directed productions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Cymbeline, and devised and directed several programs of scenes from Shakespeare and from modern British drama. His acting credits include the Shakespearean roles of Casca, Angelo, Bassanio, and Henry IV, as well as various parts in the ancient and modern plays.

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Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 59 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fascinating and enjoyable I've read most of Shakespeare and seen a few performances. I loved the new insights I got from this course. Sacchio is well organized, thought provoking, and extremely good at Shakespeare. He comes at it from the written word, the dramatic presentation, and the historical context. In some lectures he follows the thread of a theme or highlights the big ideas in a play; in others he focuses on what makes the play particularly interesting. I especially enjoyed his comments about how this or that production emphasized this or that aspect of a character or setting. I also quite enjoyed Sacchio's dramatic readings. I highly recommend this course to those who have read or seen productions of most of the plays, even if years and years ago. October 31, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Shakespeare: A detailed survey Comedies, Histories and Trajedies is a fantastic course. I purchased the audio version and listened over headset while walking my dog. Professor Saccio really does a fantastic job of going through many of the plays from the different categories. He does seem to effect a bit of east coast university snobbishness but don't let that disuade you from the course. He is a true expert in the material and presents it in an interesing and engaging fasion. If you are new to Shakespeare, as I was, having only studied Hamlet in college, and just touched upon Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, and MacBeth, I would recommend that you take a different Shakespeare course first. I recommend highly the somewhat shorter course by Marc Conner, called "How to Read and Understand Shakespeare". By taking this course first, I believe you will enjoy and get more out of the course by Sacco. At least I did. I also went through courses on the Iliad, Odessy, the Aeneid, Dante, Old Testiment and New Tesitment, prior to Shakespeare. A course in the high Middle ages and the English Dynasties is also recommended prior, if possible. In any event, you should be very satisfied with this purchase. October 22, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Sagacious Guide to Shakespeare Having listened to this course three times, I highly recommend it. It can serve as an introduction to Shakespeare's plays, but it will also be of interest to those well acquainted with the subject. My only disappointment is to find that Professor Saccio is close-minded about the fascinating authorship question. He typifies those excellent Shakespeare scholars who are so certain there is no evidence to disprove their theory of who wrote the works that they are woefully uninformed about this evidence. Relatively speaking, that's still a small matter, and is greatly outweighed by the excellence of his course. April 24, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Shakespeare in depth Let me start by saying that I have zero background in literature, I bought this class because I decided I wanted to read Shakespeare. Because of a sale I also bought a Shakespeare course by Prof Conner. If you do not know the plots or characters of the plays, an introductory course (Prof Conner) was most helpful. But after I read the play, I would listen to this course, and get a completely different point of view and analysis of the play. Professor Peter Saccio is a great lecturer if you are familiar with the plays, and want a deeper understanding. If you were like me and are a newbie, other courses would be more apprpriate. February 22, 2014
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