How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

Course No. 2711
Professor Marc C. Conner, Ph.D.
Washington and Lee University
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Course No. 2711
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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 Excellent I was looking for something on line that could help me to know and understand more about Shakespeare and his work. This series of lectures is exactly what I was looking for. If you are completely ignorant as me about the subject, I strongly advise to follow each lesson related to a play while watching the play itself (I downlad them from the global theatre site but I assume there may be other good on line resources available). And it is also useful to have the text at hand.
Date published: 2017-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting and informative. Outstanding presentation. This course covers a lot of ground and it helped make some additional sense of recollections of previous performances I've attended and helped me appreciate the plays I've seen after viewing the lectures. I will refer to these lectures for a long time to come.
Date published: 2017-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Marc Conner brings out your complete curiosity. I have been buying these courses for almost 20 years! Most of them are great. However, Marc Conner goes far beyond that high bar. I just finished his Irish History course and am now almost through his Shakespeare course...just fantastic. I would like to meet and talk with him someday.
Date published: 2017-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gets to the heart of the plays I really enjoyed the series. The lectures really summarized the important themes well And gave me tools to apply to all the plays, even those not covered in detail.
Date published: 2017-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I bought this course about a month ago. I like the lectures so well that I've listened to each one of the 24 twice. Dr. Connor has a very engaging style of presentation and I learned something in every lecture that I had not known before. I am not an expert on Shakespeare by any means, but I had previously read and studied in class 3 or 4 of the plays he focused on and found something fascinating in each lecture that was new to me. I initially thought his approach of using "tools" to understanding Shakespeare was a bit of a cliche, but actually found them useful. I also very much appreciated his talking about the different editions of Shakespeare's works and his pointing out the particular advantages and disadvantages of the editions he recommends. Taking this course led me to going back to Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest and reading them again in their entirety. The course truly enriched my appreciation of Shakespeare
Date published: 2017-02-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Analysis Excellent analysis and insights on 12 of Shakespeare’s plays; While the “tools” discussed for understanding Shakespeare didn’t help understand the language/text as much as they'd hope, they could help explain some of the plots or what Shakespeare was trying to achieve. Pluses: • Excellent literary analysis and insights on the following plays: 1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2. Romeo and Juliet 3. Twelfth Night 4. Richard II 5. Henry IV, Part I 6. Henry IV, Part 2 7. Henry V 8. Macbeth 9. Hamlet 10. The Merchant of Venice 11. Measure for Measure 12. The Tempest Minuses: • My one gripe is that the “tools” presented by the professor don’t seem to truly be tools to me. At least not what I was expecting going in. I thought they would've been focused on helping one understand the sometimes difficult text Shakespeare uses and would've involved translations of common words. Instead their helpfulness was more in explaining why Shakespeare did something specifically with one of his plots or what he was trying to achieve to help one appreciate the overall cohesiveness of his plays. If you often find yourself confused following Shakespeare plots then this course and the tools presented will truly help you appreciate the beauty and genius of Shakespeare by allowing you to see and understand the complexity of the plots. If you are looking for assistance on reading the plays such as meanings of words, text, and lines then this may not be the best course for you. But I could see anyone at any level taking alot from this course. I have read every one of his plays, have seen over 50 live performances, and read alot of critical analysis but I learned quite alot from this course and enjoyed the professor's style.
Date published: 2017-02-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Love it! I've always loved Shakespeare, but quite often got lost in trying to follow the dialogue and plot. This professor clarifies things beautifully and in a very entertaining way.
Date published: 2017-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Through the Instrument My Pate Made Way Whether you are a Shakespeare novice or a devoted fan, this fabulous course offers insights and approaches to increase your understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare's craft and the stories and characters in the plays themselves. I have this course on audio. Professor Conner's presentations are outstanding: clear and straightforward, with easily understandable explanations and analysis, delivered with enthusiasm. His stated goal for this course is to make Shakespeare's plays more accessible (and less intimidating) to readers and viewers, and he succeeds. He does so through a detailed examination of a dozen plays, showing how Shakespeare repeatedly uses several "stock" plots, characters, settings, stagecraft, dramatic techniques, and themes, mixing and matching to build the basic frameworks and engines for his comedies, tragedies, histories, and romances. Professor Conner explains how each of these components works and how they fit together -- leading to a greater understanding of why things happen the way they do in Shakespeare's plays. Armed with this understanding of the components, we are then better able to appreciate how Shakespeare takes these basic pieces and customizes them, enhances them, gives them greater depth, beauty, subtlety, and power, transforming them from basic theater to, well, Shakespeare. Professor Conner refers ad nauseam to using "tools" as a roundabout way of identifying the standard components that Shakespeare employs in his plays -- like saying "our screwdriver helps us to take this apart" instead of saying "it is held together with a screw." I think that is a deliberate (if annoying) device to reinforce his message of active empowerment: _anyone_ can use this knowledge (Professor Conner's "tools") to look inside any of Shakespeare's plays and understand them without confusion or intimidation.
Date published: 2016-09-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from reading Shakespear the course is very interesting ,and very helpful in understanding the plays. I was not very pleased after I bought the course to see that the next week it was 50 dollars cheaper. I my thing twice before buying another course!
Date published: 2016-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent An excellent presentation. This is not the usual pedantic presentation I see too often. Very understandable and interesting.
Date published: 2016-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Finally I appreciate Shakespeare Professor Marc Connors’s tools are illuminating; his enthusiasm, infectious; his method, captivating. He has guided me from trying to read Shakespeare with opaque frustration to deep, personal enjoyment. I’ve gone from floundering without the least penetration, to underlined and margin noted appreciations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest. He has given me the enthusiasm and tools to go on my own to appreciate King Lear and add Julius Caesar, Othello, and Anthony and Cleopatra to my literary bucket list. This guy doesn’t have any idea who I am, and yet he is one of the most respected teachers I have had in a life now spanning 60 years. Please, if you want to be able to read and obtain a personal appreciation of Shakespeare but have been discouraged in prior attempts, take this course.
Date published: 2016-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Course! Hallmark of a great professor is his ability to deepen and expand my enjoyment and appreciation of an interesting subject--in this case the great literature of Shakespeare. Prof. Conner's insightful commentary on each of the plays he touches in this course should enrich your Shakespeare reading and playgoing. He focuses on a number of keys ("tools" he calls them) for gaining a richer understanding of the plays' structure, plots, staging and storylines. One example is the "block to love" (usually from a parent) that sets the stage for Midsummer Night's Dream or Romeo and Juliet. The comedy sees the loving pair together in the end and a happy order restored to the world. The tragedy sees this block unmoved and the lovers doomed (perhaps by fate?) to a sad and unhappy end. Prof. Conner illustrates these keys throughout the course; they will surely enhance my future enjoyment of the plays. I hope they do the same for you.
Date published: 2016-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from To Listen or Not to Listen… This is a fantastic, but short, course providing techniques for understanding Shakespeare. As a precursor, I have always enjoyed the wit of Shakespeare and his command of language. Shakespeare mastered wordcraft like no one before or since, and I am awed by his ability to layer multiple meanings into a simple phrase. So, a reader of this review should understand that I am more than a little biased toward the Bard. The professor is more than a little biased too and clearly admires Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the history of the English language. This course does not attempt to analyze all of Shakespeare's plays. Instead, this course presents interpretative techniques such as the "foul is fair and fair is foul" technique and the "block to love" technique. He explains various techniques, then selects a play where a technique works particularly well and applies the technique to that play. In that manner, the professor provides detailed analysis for about a half-dozen of Shakespeare's plays. The professor does a good job explaining the techniques and demonstrating the application. Though I was a fan of Shakespeare before this course, I feel better armed now to interpret plays. The professor shared new insights and thoughtful observations. The professor has made me even more interested in Shakespeare, and I look forward to my next opportunity to catch a play.
Date published: 2015-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from All's Well That Ends Well! I liked the Bard of Avon before this course, but I love him even more now having watched "How to Read and Understand Shakespeare". All the time I was watching the course, I kept thinking, "Why was this course not around when I was in high school?" While I did enjoy reading Shakespeare in high school, my teachers didn't really help explain how to properly read the text. They would point out the references that he was making to mythological and historical characters and events and explain the meaning of certain words. But overall, I wasn't taught how Like many high schoolers I relied on Spark Notes to read the text for me. Professor Connor creates a toolkit for readers to use when reading through Shakespeare. It is like a cheat sheet, if you will, I help For Example, all of his pays have a "double plot", one plot concerning upper class characters and another concerning lower class characters. Both storylines mirror and contrast each other. Another is the "Block to Love", some character or situation that arises that prevents a young couple from marrying. This crops up in A Midsummer Night's Dream in the form of the Athenian Law and in The Merchant of Venice with the three caskets. Yet another is "Altar or Tomb". This tool is used to identify a play as either a comedy or tragedy. After taking his course, I picked up my copy of Shakespeare's plays and read "As You Like It". Using the tools that Professor Connor showed me, I was finally able to enjoy reading a Shakespeare play. I plan of reading all of the Bard's plays throughout my life and I have someone to thank for it. I personally feel that "How to Read and Understand Shakespeare" should be adapted to high school classrooms. I strongly believe that students would have a love to the Bard's work and would respond readily to Professor Connor's teaching.
Date published: 2015-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding and Wonderful! I am amazed that there are any negative reviews here, truly. This is an outstanding and wonderful *introduction* to "how to read and understand Shakespeare." Now, some have complained that they would have to read the plays, too, to fully appreciate this course. That is correct and, um, should not be too much of a surprise. This is an overview of the greatest writer in the English language. (For my money, the only thing that comes close is "Moby-Dick.") Would you take a course about Michelangelo without looking at his work? However - I disagree moderately with my TGC friend and Number One reviewer, Jacqueline, in that I believe this course can be greatly enjoyed, and is very worthwhile, even if you have never read any Shakespeare. In this case it will provide an excellent basis on which to proceed, in addition to being fascinating in itself. And it will hopefully serve as a powerful motivator to actually read these magnificent plays. If you are already familiar with many or most of the plays, all the better. The course will, unless you are already a Shakespeare scholar, add greatly to your insight and appreciation. (Note that I say "read," rather than "see." It is Shakespeare's words which are magnificent; a performance can range from wonderful to abysmal. And I certainly and strongly suggest that you read any play before you see it, if at all possible.) Professor Connor is as fine a professor of literature as I have ever heard. His unfailing enthusiasm is matched by the depth of his insights, his straightforward yet elegant style, and his superb organization. Plus, for a survey course, there is a remarkable depth to his discussions. Some reviewers found his use of "tools" of analysis to be a bit too cute and obvious; they are, but overall I found that they facilitated my thinking in an organized manner and added to my ability to understand and appreciate the works. So - This course has my highest recommendation for any, no matter how experienced with the material, with an interest in literature and Shakespeare.
Date published: 2015-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Finally, I can approach Shakespeare on my own Shakespeare has always been a challenge. In high school and in college, the teacher or professor leads you through the play pointing out references to historic events, explaining the meaning of words, and so on. I have always found it difficult to do on my own. I would read the footnotes. They were helpful, but it was awkward to refer to all of them, and if I didn't read them, I always worried I was missing something. Of course, watching the plays was helpful. I did figure out for myself that reading out loud could be helpful. This course, however, solved this problem. It gave me a way to approach Shakespeare. He explains how to approach the different types of plays and some approaches that apply to all the plays. For example, there are certain tools that Shakespeare uses in all/most comedies. These include a green world where people go toe escape their troubles, the 3 part comic structure (block, escape, return), and double plots to name a few. Dramas/tragedies have identity crises, power reversals, a sacrifice figure, and a moment of mirth to name a few. He also shows the commonalities across the plays and how a change in one aspect can determine whether the play is a comedy or tragedy. For example, many plays feature the block to young love. The resolution of the block leads to tragedy or comedy. Romeo and Juliet has a block to young love that ends with the suicides of the lovers. In the comedies, the lovers get together at the end. I have read other plays since listening to this course, and it was much easier to fully appreciate the plays and how Shakespeare structured them. I have even made up a spreadsheet with the various tools, so I can easily refer to it when reading ones of the plays. My two criteria for a course are: was it thought-provoking and did it make me want to learn more. I give this course A's on both criteria. I learned a lot of useful things about Shakespeare that helped me think more effectively about Shakespeare. And, now that I better understand what's going on, I have, in fact, read more plays. I have also been reading other Shakespeare experts, notably Margery Garber.
Date published: 2015-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is an astounding Shakespeare course Over the years, I have ordered more than 120 courses from The Learning Company which became The Great Courses. As a literature major in college long ago, I took several courses on Shakespeare. I have watched Great Courses Shakespearean titles. NOTHING AND NO ONE (except maybe Harold Bloom) could do it better than Professor Conner. I thought I knew Shakespeare, knew the plays...yet he brought out so many insights into the plays he covered that my friends and i were mesmerized. We know each lecture is about 30 minutes, but with Professor Conner's lectures, it feels that only 5 minutes have passed because we are so engaged in what he says. Does Great Courses have any other courses by Professor Conner? Believe me when i say that this course is very high on the list of the best courses I have ever taken from Great Courses. I recommend it with great enthusiasm. I am so glad i found him!
Date published: 2015-03-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Makes Shakespeare come alive We found this course excellent in every regard. Professor Conner's presentation is friendly, intelligent, and engaging - very compelling. His material is clearly presented and well organized. Shakespeare is an elusive subject for many of us, but we feel empowered to pursue his works.
Date published: 2015-03-10
Rated 2 out of 5 by from For Children? Yes If you are a child then you will enjoy that. If you are an adult who graduated at least high school, this will be boring, too simplified, and not useful. It sounds really entertaining, but it does not provide any REAL insights into Shakespeare's plays. I am disappointed. I expected much more.
Date published: 2015-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from To read, or not to read. That "was" the question! Quick flashback to high school: To read, or not to read, that is the question— Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer through The reading of this Shakespearean drivel, Or to take Arms against my teacher and principal, And by opposing, get into deep dodo? To die, to sleep— To spend the rest of my days in detention class! And so it was….. Fast forward to the present: I now read and "understand" Shakespeare. Thanks to Professor Conner. If you are the least bit curious about or interested in Shakespeare (or life, for that matter) buy this course now. I suffered through Shakespeare in high school, attempted to read it in college, and couldn't be brought to within a thousand yards of a performance of it in adulthood. I bought this course just to surprise my wife. I figured I could feign consciousness while pretending to enjoy it with her. But to my amazement and surprise Professor Conner cast Shakespeare in an entirely new light that I could easily grasp, enjoy and appreciate. Professor Conner is a master educator, superior presenter, and no doubt an outstanding performer. You will be informed as well as entertained as he hands you the keys, or as he puts it the tools, to unlock the meaning of the plays and the literary genius of Shakespeare. Professor Conner has done us all a great service and the price of the course is minuscule compared to the value received.
Date published: 2015-02-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What a Great Way to Really Enjoy Shakespeare Ten years ago my wife and I started visiting London every January on a two week theater tour conducted by the Fine Arts Department at Ocean County Community College in Toms River, New Jersey. I had little or no interest in theater before that first trip, but since then have become totally hooked. Our first visit in 2005 included Romeo and Juliet performed at The Old Vic by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and since then we have seen many more Shakespeare plays both in London and in Stratford-upon-Avon. This year, after enjoying every moment of this course, we saw a challenging new performance of Othello at the Lyric in Hammersmith and a very special creation called "Love's Labor Won" by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. My enjoyment of each was hugely enriched by what I learned from Professor Conner's lectures. I especially enjoyed hearing him read - and sometimes perform - critical lines from many of these immortal plays. This is exactly the kind of spirited, quality teaching that keeps me signing up for Great Courses.
Date published: 2015-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome Shakespeare Course! This was absolutely one of my very favorite Great Courses!! I loved it. The professor, Marc Conner, is extremely knowledgeable about all facets of Shakesperian study, He is also interesting, upbeat and passionate. There is never a dull moment with this course. I looked forward to every lecture! I had previously read a few plays and really loved them, but it always seemed like they took so much time and they were difficult. I was intimidated by Shakespeare, but I lamented over what I was missing. Not so any more! This course explains tools and patterns of Shakespeare's Comedy and Tradgedy, really helping the student to be able to get a rich understanding. After taking this course, I read Othello in one night! Plus I greatly enjoyed and understood it! I am looking forward to reading many more plays, possibly even buying a complete anthology. And the best part is I am not intimidated, nor will it take me years to do this! I highly rec this course for anyone who loves The Bard and would like a good understanding of his work. Thank you Professor Conner, you have really opened my eyes to a whole new world of Shakespeare!!
Date published: 2015-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from How to Read and Understand Shakespeare This class is an awesome tool to review Shakespeare. I teach high school English and the resource material has provided an extra stimulus to enhance my instruction. The professor is well-learned and an outstanding speaker.
Date published: 2014-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from More Than Live Up to Expectations! Dr. Conner delivers a lively and informative guide to Shakespeare which for me not only added much needed insight but rekindled old passions. Although a lifelong lover of literature, I admit to having often felt intimidated trying to understand the language of Shakespeare's time and place. But no more! Professor Conner is not only a brilliant and serious scholar but, as is so often with the Great Courses, a gifted teacher as well. Likewise, his in depth background in theater shines through in both style and content. A real joy!
Date published: 2014-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course Remember how Shakespeare was taught at school? Well, this course is NOTHING like that. This lively and entertaining set of lectures makes you want to go out and read all of the plays under discussion. The presenter is passionate and enthusiastic. There is nothing dry about this course. I used this as part of a homeschool literature program and it was a huge success. We watched the first lecture on each play and then watched a film version, before proceeding to subsequent lectures. This proved to be an excellent way to have an introduction to the plays and then to go into detail. The course is focused on empowering the viewer to have the confidence and enthusiasm for tackling any of Shakespeare's plays and the overarching themes and tools make this possible. I would highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2014-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-10-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-09-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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!
Date published: 2014-07-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Shakespeare can be accessible Professor Conner gives a series of "tools" to help see what is happening in Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, tools, which seem obvious when presented. One can find oneself thinking, "Oh yes, of course." Light bulbs go on, and one's mind can run with the "tools." This approach should make traditionally produced Shakespearean stage productions more accessible, as the lectures definitely are. My husband and I listened to the two introductory lectures and then moved to the two on Measure for Measure, as just last weekend we saw a student performance at Case Western Reserve University, which was quite well done. The lectures brought the play back to mind with interesting observations about the dual nature of all of the characters in the play. Professor Conner mentions a program in Stanton,Virginia to produce Shakespearean drama as Shakespeare's audience would have seen it, that should be fun to visit. Many attempts to make Shakespeare productions appeal to modern audience end up as patronizing to the sensibilities of the audience. Shakespeare can be lost in gags meant to appeal to an audience in a particular venue, or with unnecessary references to contemporary pop culture and lose sight of the intriguing character development within the plays themselves. Having heard only 4 of the lectures so far, there are many details that I won't miss when next seeing a Shakespearean drama produced on the stage or in a movie.
Date published: 2014-04-27
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