How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Marc C. Conner

About Your Professor

Marc C. Conner, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

How to Read and Understand Shakespeare is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 55.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from These series of lectures were superb. I've always enjoyed seeing Shakespeare's plays but had never really analyzed them, and I now realize that I didn't have the tools to analyze them. These series of lectures provide the tools. The lectures are clear, precise and very informative. I do think that it is important to either know the plays before you listen or read the plays along with the lectures. Listening to the lectures does not displace, and is not intended to displace, reading/seeing the plays themselves. Rather, it provides tools to analyze and understand the plays. This is one of the very best Great Courses I've ever listended to. Highest recommendation.
Date published: 2014-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Yes, it IS worth hearing OK, so many of us have seen plenty of Shakespeare's plays performed, some many times,and read plenty of them in college, so what is this "how to read Shakespeare"? Reading is reading, is that not true? No it isn't..This professor has not only read Shakespeare but has produced and directed Shakespeare. He has a number of interesting observations on the various plays, and gives a lot of relevant history of he times, but most interestingly he points out the basic structure which runs through all of the plays; how comedies are just the flip side of potential tragedies; where (so often the same) in the play this decision gets made;and the surprising (to me) way the play-within-the-play appears over and over again, often in a subtle form. and you know what? At the end of this course you really do have a "way" to read Shakespeare. Incredible learning experience.
Date published: 2014-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Shakespeare? Seriously? I am a great fan of the Great Courses, I have enjoyed courses in art, music, and the sciences. So, I went out of my comfort zone and on a whim ordered this course. WOW. Prof Conner is so knowledgeable and ENTHUSIASTIC that after a lesson I couldn't wait to delve into Shakespeare. Through the course I read 12 Shakespeare plays, and was guided by Prof Conner with his insights and inside knowledge. Since completing this course I have read 29 of the 38 Shakespeare plays, and each one gets easier to read thanks to Prof Conner. (The first play, Midsummer Night's Dream took me one week to read, I just read Pericles in one day, and only had to read a few footnotes). My next project is to see these plays performed...I went to Amazon and bought DVDs of Olivier's Richard III, Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, and the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet. Thank you Professor Conner, now I can appreciate Shakespeare along with Mozart, Monet and Stephen Hawking.
Date published: 2014-02-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How to Read and Understand Shakespeare Like some of the other reviewers, My exposure to Shakespeare dates back many years to high school. I have listened to one of the other Teaching Company series on Shakespeare and was not engaged. For some reason, reading the ad for this series made me decide I wanted to find out why Shakespeare is so revered by so many. I have only worked through the first three plays, I am now a fan of the Bard. I resolved to read the plays along with the lectures and found out that I enjoyed reading them over at least twice while listening to the lecture a couple of times as well. I would agree that listening to the lectures without actually reading the plays would be a waste of time. Of course the comedies are silly as well as entertaining. But I have concluded that Shakespeare had a very whimsical view of romantic love. Why else would you have the Queen of Fairies fall in love with a donkey? Professor Conner forces me and other readers to actually savor the words. This is a way to read that is so different from the way I, and I believe most people, read novels today. And why I never could connect with these plays. I am now hooked on the Bard. I only hope that the "tools" will help me read the other plays that are not included in the course.
Date published: 2014-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from HOW TO READ & UNDERSTAND SHAKESPEARE VERY LUCID, ILLUMINATING, EVEN POETIC. MY MIND DID NOT STRAY!
Date published: 2013-10-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from not very useful for me I was excited to get this course as I would love to know more about Shakespeare and deepen my understanding of his plays. Prof. Conner is an excellent lecturer, and he clearly gets and loves Shakespeare's work; Conner speaks eloquently and with passion about this topic. But for me, I found that I didn't get much out of this course given the small snippets of information about the plays revealed in their associated lectures. I didn't have the context so the analysis didn't do much to deepen my knowledge. I think I would have found this to be a great course had I just read or seen several of the plays; but taking this course not having read Shakespeare since high school was a waste of money and time. I did learn some useful facts about common themes in Shakespeare's plays, such as the use of parallel themes in lower-class and upper-class characters, and the frequent use of a play within a play. These are some of the useful "tools" touted in the course description. A few times, though, I found the tool device to be a bit gimmicky. The tool stressing the power of words, and the tool focused on knowing the history in the history plays each led to think "Well, Duh!". So overall I didn't find this useful, but would probably have a much higher rating if I took this again.
Date published: 2013-08-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from sorry it's over! I have many many Great Courses and this course and this teacher are amongst the best. Presentation is engaging, and for a brief survey, hits an excellent collection points and tie ins. I love his approach of developing tools to apply to all of the plays. I also appreciate his discussions on how characters develop (or not) over the course of a play. I already loved Shakespeare and appreciated him as 'for all time', but now see and understand so much more and have started reading plays he discusses (BTW he makes excellent suggestions about published editions with notation, and I'm loving the Arden series). I only wish there was more, perhaps a set of courses on the different genres individually (History, Comedy, Tragedy, even sonnets) so that we could go even more in depth into these great works. I'd love a walk through of all the plays with Dr. Connor.
Date published: 2013-08-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Presentation That Does Justice to Shakespeare Outstanding course! The professor lectures with such great style, you would think each lecture was perfected by an actor to be presented on stage. It's as much fun as it is informative, and as informative as it is fun. Worth every penny and minute spent.
Date published: 2013-07-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very Good Tools Professor Conner has created a very good course on Shakespeare, particularly for students who are new to the plays of the Bard. The professor's basic approach is to identify key common features of the plays and offer the student a series of tools to recognize those features, which, in turn, can help greatly in understanding and appreciating the text. The "geography" of the plays, of course, varies by type - comedy, tragedy, history, or romance. Further, their terrain continues to change as one confronts Shakespeare's more mature work. The professor is keen to these differences and refines the tools to help the reader navigate that evolving landscape. In my view, the course is not as brilliant as Clare Kinney's, for example, and thus isn't, for me, as satisfying. Given the principal emphasis here on the overarching elements in the plays, there is naturally somewhat less attention to the particulars and a thinner exploration of character. Yet, even with this deficiency, the teaching is strong, and I recommend the course both to newcomer and veteran students. Professor Conner is extremely bright, insightful, and enthusiastic about helping make Shakespeare more accessible. I very much admire his sense of mission in breaking down people's fear and knowledgeably teaching effective means of encountering the plays. This creates an enthusiasm for further study. And that achievement, in and of itself, is an important and worthy virtue of the course.
Date published: 2013-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and Enjoyable As a lover of Shakespeare and one familiar with his work, I both enjoyed and learned from this course. The tools presented are very helpful in analyzing Shakespeare's plays and good plays of other authors. I have three other Teaching Company courses on Shakespeare and all are excellent and give different prospectives on these great works.
Date published: 2013-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reading and Understanding Shakespeare. I agree that these lectures are quite rich in material and that all 24 of them, about the man and his works, are excellent. I would only add two things. First, the more plays you know, the more insightful these lectures are. And second, You Tube offers complete versions of most of Shakespeare's plays. Seeing the plays really does help in understanding them.
Date published: 2013-03-29
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Agree to disagree. Most of these lectures have a lot of good and interesting information to offer about the reading and interpreting of Shakespeare until Professor Conner tries to overlay the dearth of knowledge we really have about the dates of when the plays were written and the ridiculous speculation about how the life of a country bumpkin from Stratford has some bearing on the meaning of the plays. I have been reading and performing Shakespeare for forty years now and long before I heard about the authorship question there seemed to be a disconnect between the plays and man. I won’t argue the point other than to say – I have over time agreed to disagree but I always hesitate at a new course on Shakespeare because I know the standard academic belief that some man from Stratford on Avon wrote these plays will be forced into the lecture and reading of the plays. I find the life of Will of Stratford to be so incongruent to the plays themselves that it is like taking a beautiful melody and throwing in the sound of a carwreck. All of these lectures would have benefitted without the life of Will of Stratford. Somehow knowing that someone in the sixteenth century lost his son and father sometime around the dates we speculate that Hamlet was written does little to add to our understanding of the play.
Date published: 2013-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Plays with Building Blocks The Great Courses have always given us wonderful Shakespeare lectures. This latest offering continues this winning streak. I have always thought myself a bit of a Shakespeare buff, but what Professor Conner has done has never even crossed my mind. What he does is break down the different genre (Histories,Tragedies, Comedies ) into their standard 'building blocks'. Professor Connor calls them 'tools'. These are elements common to each genre. For example, all Shakespeare comedies have a 'young love stymied' tool, in which a parent, guardian or higher authority tries to derail the young lovers. In Comedies, this is always overcome, otherwise it would be a Tragedy -- think Romeo & Juliet. Each of the 24 lectures is riveting and well presented. Two thumbs up !
Date published: 2013-03-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course, but not enough by itself Video download. Dr. Conner's HOW TO READ AND UNDERSTAND SHAKESPEARE provides a new and, I think, effective way to approach an intimidating literary icon. He does so by highlighting motifs, situations or themes — all "tools" in this course — that recur depending on whether we are dealing with Shakespeare's comedies, histories, tragedies or romances. In a comedy like "Midsummer Night's Dream" for example, young lovers face opposition (a tool) forcing them to escape momentarily to a nature spot (another tool "the green world") where transformation is possible. At the same time, parallel love stories involving lower- or upper-class lovers (the "double plot" tool) function as foils to the primary couple. These lovers sever old friendships or redefine them (tool). The third act is a fork in the road: shall it be comedy or tragedy? The altar or the tomb? It could go either way as the same tools recur in many plays. Then there is a "play within the play" (another tool, farcical in "Midsummer"). And now to bed. The tools, in other words, are sign posts enjoining you to pause and pay attention. How are they used? How do they differ from other plays you know. The more you meet, the better you get at interpreting them. This is all useful stuff if you are a homeschooler or a literature teacher. But this is where I disagree with Dr Conner. And I do so tremulously as I am no Shakespeare scholar, aficionado or even fan by any means. I was merely a high school survivor who collided with a demanding, knowledgeable literature teacher many, many eons ago. Conner states that Shakespeare provides you with everything you need to know in his plays as long as you focus on the tools. This is a bit misleading in my experience. Follow this advice, and tears of frustration are sure to follow. This is the procedure I would advise. 1. Read plot summaries of Shakespeare's plays to see what you spontaneously like. I was in my youth a proud graduate of the "Classic Comics" (Classics Illustrated) school of literary analysis. There is so much more available on the net now, albeit more scholarly with no pictures. Too bad. 2. You will probably drift towards the tragedies first. We are all the children of Ibsen, Chekhov and Hollywood storytelling rules: as few characters as possible, show don't tell, goal-seeking heroes facing opposition through a logical cause-and-effect series of scenes. Shakespeare's tragedies are closest to this model. In comparison, the comedies seem much more contrived: silly plots, too many characters, a surfeit of verbal pyrotechnics designed to impress connoisseurs long dead. The love of allegory rankles most. The humble reader must wearily endure characters and situations that stand for something else — the click - click - click of people moving on an allegorical chessboard few moderns care about. And yet, as Conner implies, the comedies may present a saner picture of life than the "unbalanced" tragic heroes. 3. Then and only then use Dr Conner's course. You know where things are going. You grasp the essential themes explored. Focus now on the "tools" and learn to use them. This is where his course becomes truly useful. But it is not that good an entry point by itself in my humble opinion. 4. You are not finished yet. To get more, you will have to bone up on English royal history to truly appreciate Shakespeare's histories (Conner admits as much). Learning a bit about the Elizabethan world view — religion, the great chain of being, etc. — really helps with the tragedies and comedies. Wikipedia is a good source for this. 5. Finally, you will need a portable edition of the plays where the modern meaning of old words are conveniently spelled out next to the text. For beginners, this is by far a more approachable effort than TTC's other two courses WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: COMEDIES, HISTORIES, AND TRAGEDIES and SHAKESPEARE'S TRAGEDIES. Good as they are, they assume you know the plots and basic English history. _____________ So there you go. Conner's PRESENTATION is fantastic. He is clear, personable, eloquent and very organized. The course guidebook is also excellent. A special effort was made to include many of the quoted passages, unlike previous courses on poetry. Audio-only versions should be OK, although you will retain much more if you read the guidebook before or soon after each course. But this course, by itself, will not suffice to penetrate Shakespeare's plays for the reasons enumerated above. The "tools" he explores are very helpful, but only as part of a larger process. Strongly recommended.
Date published: 2013-03-20
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