Shakespeare's Tragedies

Course No. 2752
Professor Clare R. Kinney, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
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Course No. 2752
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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version contains nearly 170 visuals to enhance your learning. Illustrations of Shakespeare's most famous plays, including Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth are featured, as well as historical renderings of the writer's life and times. On-screen spellings and definitions are utilized to help reinforce the material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

Shakespeare's contributions to stage and language are unequaled. In what Professor Clare R. Kinney calls the "power and audacity of his poetry and stagecraft," Shakespeare has left audiences breathless these past four centuries.

His artistry is as evident in moments of insensate rage, as when King Lear dares Nature to do her worst—

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples,
drowned the cocks!

as it is in moments of heartbreaking tenderness, as when Othello steals a few last kisses from the sleeping and innocent wife he is about to murder for the adultery he imagines—

Ah balmy breath, that doth almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more. …

But beyond his astonishing feats of language and dramatic impact, Shakespeare also left us a legacy, crafted from his experiences and explorations, of suffering and transgression in his six great mature tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.

Questions and Dilemmas of Tragedy

Experienced students of Shakespeare, those new to his work, and those who may be returning after many years away, will all find it makes an optimal addition to their libraries of books and of other Teaching Company literature courses.

Professor Kinney's aim is to take you deep within each play. You'll observe Shakespeare's protagonists struggling to make choices in the face of competing social, moral, and psychological pressures and "clawing [from] their pain and horror," as she puts it, "a kind of insight."

Professor Kinney supplies a series of insights that teach a nuanced understanding of each play's meaning—a gift that will increase the dramatic impact of every Shakespearean tragedy you see on the stage or screen, or visualize as you read them, as well as enhance your ability to form insights on your own with each reading or performance.

As Professor Kinney works through the plays, you'll see how Shakespeare returns again and again to a set of themes that resonate through his work.

What can happen when the desires of an individual are at odds with the constraints or demands of the society around him? How do love, hatred, and ambition sever loyalties in what would today be called a "dysfunctional family"?

How is power used and felt, whether it be political and erotic power, the power of language and imagination, or even the power of theater itself, as in Hamlet's "play within the play," or in the kind of public theatrics required of, and rejected by, the title character of Coriolanus?

These are only some of the themes Professor Kinney explores in Shakespeare's Tragedies, a 24-lecture look at the astonishing body of work produced by Shakespeare from 1600–1608. It is a body of work made all the more astonishing by considering that it was not written to be the timeless dramatic art it has become, but as commercial theater in a competitive marketplace that placed excessive demands on its writers and performers.

While today's greatest hits run for months, perhaps even years, the theatrical world of Shakespeare's time was very different.

A Theatrical Reality Far Different from Today's

With theaters closed only on church holidays, in bad weather, or in time of plague, theater companies had to have enormous repertories, and a very long run lasted only 10 days. Professor Kinney talks about one theater company, for instance, whose records from the 1594–95 season have survived. The records show 38 plays performed—21 of them newly written—which indicates that a new play was added about every two weeks.

Yet even working under those conditions, Shakespeare was able to produce works that probed the human condition with extraordinary perception.

Moving from play to play, following Shakespeare's recurring themes, Professor Kinney also devotes particular focus to two themes that surface repeatedly in his tragedies.

The first of these issues, that of agency, concerns those who actually get to make choices about the roles they take in their own lives, acting freely, and confronting the consequences of their actions.

Is Macbeth, for example, acting on his own by murdering Duncan to ascend to the throne? Is he responding to half-suppressed forces of ambition that have been unleashed by Lady Macbeth? Or is he the witches' pawn, acting out the tragic script that they have set in motion? The play suggests all of these things, and learning to see and evaluate the evidence for diverse interpretations of a complex drama is one of the many intellectual pleasures offered by these lectures.

A second topic that echoes through these plays is that of transgression, when characters—especially women—make a choice that is perceived as violating a social or moral boundary.

When Desdemona marries the Moor, Othello, for example, she has crossed a racial barrier, committing what her father calls an "unnatural" act. And when she crosses the boundary that demands a wife's silence and submission, she transgresses yet again, daring to dispute her husband's allegations with a denial that earns her his wrathful epithet, "strumpet."

Women as Tragic Protagonists

Professor Kinney plays close attention to the roles of women in these tragedies, considering whether women can indeed be tragic protagonists—all but one of these plays are named after males. She addresses the significance of just who, in a play, gives the soliloquies that make the audience privy to their reflections on their feelings or actions.

But she also looks at the ways women can and do exercise power in the plays, as in the example of Coriolanus's mother, Volumnia, whose belief system has shaped her son's psyche and whose climactic re-enactment of the control she wields over him destroys him.

One of the extra delights of the course comes from the sheer pleasure of hearing Professor Kinney present it. British by birth, she is also an occasional actress, reading not only Shakespeare's lines with emotion and understanding, but also imbuing her own statements during the lectures with high dramatic impact.

Her background as a director of student scenes also stands her in excellent stead as she offers perceptive comments about the choices directors must make in intelligently staging these plays. She ensures that dramatic impact is maximized without diluting the compelling intellectual questions that make Shakespeare's plays so rich and that Professor Kinney's lectures so eloquently bring out.

  • In Hamlet, Professor Kinney introduces you to the play's fascination with secrets and disclosure, explores its treatment of the morality of revenge, and examines the emotional violence Hamlet permits himself when the focus of his rage is female instead of male. She asks whether the "unfolding" (laying bare of identity) that one character demands of another in the very first moments of the play ever quite extends to the mysteries that lie at the heart of Hamlet himself.
  • In Othello, you'll encounter the "motiveless malignity" of the villainous Iago's manipulations, the racial and gender barriers its characters violate, and the "poisoned sight" that brings down a character unable to negotiate the demands of his identities as both a warrior and a lover.
  • In King Lear, you'll see the consequences of a rash choice unfold in one of Shakespeare's most harrowing tragedies, wondering, as generations of critics have, where—or whether—consolation can ever be found in its shattering events.
  • In Macbeth, you'll journey through the darkest corridors of ambition, conscience, and self-knowledge, where a strong-willed woman shares with her husband the role of tragic protagonist. Lady Macbeth finds that reshaping her husband's "manliness" ironically splits their partnership apart.
  • In Antony and Cleopatra, you'll meet two protagonists engulfed by the complexities of Rome's imperial history. One is torn between two aspects of his own identity, and the other is determined, even in the face of Rome's armies, to control the means of her death, and to choose the part of her conflicted lover's identity that will survive them.
  • In Coriolanus, you'll meet a war-scarred aristocrat questing for heroic independence in the midst of a world of "politics as usual." Unable to compromise his principles and, as a result, alienated from his own community, he cannot understand what has doomed him.

As Professor Kinney notes, "Shakespeare's tragedies often unfold in geographically distant places, or are set in a far-off past—but they are often shaped and inflected by matters surprisingly close to home." That is no less true of the course itself. Shakespeare's Tragedies, in Professor Kinney's words, persists in asking "what kind of significance we, in the 21st century, might wrest out of Shakespeare's tragic spectacles."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Defining Tragedy
    This lecture explores the persistent popularity of tragic drama. It includes discussions of Shakespeare's interest in the complicated relationships among protagonists, family and community, and the particular challenges and satisfactions offered by his language and idiom. x
  • 2
    Shakespearean Tragedy in Context
    After introducing performance conditions and attitudes toward the theater in Shakespeare's England, this lecture explores two contexts for thinking about Shakespearean tragedy: earlier 16th-century experiments in tragic writing, and the preoccupations and anxieties of the playwright's own historical time. x
  • 3
    Hamlet I—"Stand and unfold yourself"
    Hamlet begins with a sentry's command to "Stand and unfold [identify, disclose] yourself." This lecture addresses the work's fascination with secrets, with disclosure, and with things that cannot be put into words. x
  • 4
    Hamlet II—The Performance of Revenge
    This lecture discusses the multiple perspectives Hamlet offers on the figure of the revenger and analyzes the play's complex exploration of the morality of revenge. It also discusses Shakespeare's interest in the relationship between "heroic" action and acting-as-performance. x
  • 5
    Hamlet III—Difficult Women
    Hamlet is capable of extraordinary emotional violence against his mother and the young woman he claims to have loved. This lecture explores his confrontations with Gertrude and Ophelia and discusses why—although the "transgressions" of the women trigger so much of the action of the play—it is difficult to think of them as being tragic protagonists in their own right. x
  • 6
    Hamlet IV—Uncontainable Hamlet
    Hamlet is at once a sprawling and encyclopedic play, but it is also filled with silences and mysteries. We look at the difficulty of determining what lies at its center and the near impossibility of ever containing its multifarious events within a single interpretation. x
  • 7
    Othello I—Miscegenation and Mixed Messages
    This lecture considers attitudes toward race in the world of the play and Shakespeare's own treatment of the black/white opposition. It analyzes in detail Othello's and Desdemona's defense of their love, Shakespeare's highly nuanced treatment of Desdemona's "errant" marriage, and Othello's uneasy negotiation of his double identity as warrior and lover. x
  • 8
    Othello II—Monstrous Births
    We look at the character Iago, his plots against Othello, and the longstanding mystery of his "motiveless malignity," including his capacity to manipulate other characters through his skillful use of loaded language and his exploitation of the unexamined assumptions and biases of their culture. x
  • 9
    Othello III—"Ocular Proof"
    What aspects of Othello's psyche lead him to choose an unholy alliance with Iago over a resolute belief in his wife's fidelity? We look at the gender dynamics of this play and also analyze Shakespeare's finely nuanced representation of Othello's poisoned sight and corrupted imagination. x
  • 10
    Othello IV—Tragic Knowledge
    This lecture focuses on the play's final act, beginning with a close reading of the soliloquy in which Othello contemplates the murder of his sleeping wife and positions himself as both her judge and her executioner. The lecture goes on to examine his subsequent horrified enlightenment. x
  • 11
    King Lear I—Kingship and Kinship
    We begin our study of King Lear by discussing the love test Lear devises to divide his kingdom among his daughters, moving on to address the implications of the protagonist's double identity as king and father, and of the play's entanglement of political action with family strife in its interweaving of the "Lear Plot" with the "Gloucester Plot." x
  • 12
    King Lear II—"Unaccommodated Man"
    This lecture focuses on Shakespeare's interest in the stripping and refashioning of identities in act 3, exploring the idiosyncratic dramatic juxtapositions and oppositions out of which Shakespeare creates his new society of fools and madmen. x
  • 13
    King Lear III—The Stage of Fools
    We continue to follow the physical and metaphysical journeys taken by Lear and Gloucester, including Gloucester's journey to Dover with his disowned son Edgar, Edgar's thwarting of his father's suicide, and an analysis of the encounter between blind Gloucester and mad Lear on Dover Beach. x
  • 14
    King Lear IV—"Is this the promised end?"
    We discuss the heartbreaking reunion between Lear and his banished daughter, along with the almost immediate shattering of Lear's newfound peace and his subsequent regression into madness. What kinds of catharsis or consolation might an audience find in the play's apocalyptic ending? x
  • 15
    Macbeth I—Desire and Equivocation
    After offering some contexts for Macbeth within early 17th-century English political history, we explore the play's preoccupation with the workings of ambiguous and duplicitous language and the equivocal nature of protagonist Macbeth's own language and desires. x
  • 16
    Macbeth II—"Dispute it like a man"
    This lecture turns its focus to Lady Macbeth, the first female character we have encountered who might be called a tragic protagonist. A consideration of her strategies in manipulating her husband leads to a larger meditation on what manhood might mean in the world of Macbeth. x
  • 17
    Macbeth III—Bloody Babes and Bloody Ends
    Children are at once both utterly vulnerable and supremely powerful in the world of Macbeth. This lecture explores the link between the children (real and metaphorical) of this play and a future that Macbeth cannot ultimately control. x
  • 18
    Antony and Cleopatra I—Epic Desires
    The protagonists of Antony and Cleopatra are power brokers enmeshed in the complexities of imperial history. We look at the historical context in which the play's events unfold, discuss the Romans' fascination with Cleopatra, and consider how the play's leisurely beginning suggests darker things to come. x
  • 19
    Antony and Cleopatra II—Identity Politics
    We look at Antony's crisis of identity as he tries to reconcile his notion of "Roman" honor with his "Egyptian" appetites, and propose that the stoic and martial Roman ideal that Antony is perpetually called on to represent is not as clearly differentiated from "Egyptian" flux and cunning as Rome would believe. x
  • 20
    Antony and Cleopatra III—The Art of Dying
    We continue our discussion of the staging of identity in Antony and Cleopatra, focusing on the protagonists' highly performative suicides, the ironies that complicate Antony's bungled attempt to die a stoic Roman death, and Cleopatra's resurrection of the "heroic Antony" in her eulogy for her lover. x
  • 21
    Coriolanus I—The Loner and the Mob
    Coriolanus focuses on the public life of republican Rome, with most of its major scenes unfolding in the marketplace. We begin by looking at its protagonist's troubled relationship with the social contracts underpinning the relationship among Rome's patricians, plebeians, and tribunes. x
  • 22
    Coriolanus II—The Theater of Politics
    In this lecture, we begin by examining the implications of the protagonist's horror at accommodating himself to his society's public rituals before analyzing the clash between Coriolanus's absolutism and the politically expedient (and theatrical) dissimulation preached by his mother. x
  • 23
    Coriolanus III—Mothers and Killers
    This lecture looks more closely at the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother, examining their traumatic final encounter as it relates to the destructive contradictions that lie within the system of values she nurtured in him. x
  • 24
    Conclusion—Beyond Tragedy?
    In this final lecture, we address the elusiveness of Shakespearean tragedy as a descriptive category, and discuss Shakespeare's most striking preoccupations as a tragic dramatist, concluding with an account of what happens when our playwright moves beyond tragedy in the final works of his career. x

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Your professor

Clare R. Kinney

About Your Professor

Clare R. Kinney, Ph.D.
University of Virginia
Dr. Clare R. Kinney is Associate Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She earned her B.A. in English at Cambridge University. Under a Paul W. Mellon Fellowship, she attended Yale University, where she earned her Ph.D. Professor Kinney served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in the UVA English Department and is in charge of its Distinguished Majors Program. In 2007 Professor Kinney was the recipient of a...
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Reviews

Shakespeare's Tragedies is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 74.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting content but only fair presentation My rating of four stars is a generous average of 5 stars for content and two stars for presentation. Professor Kinney offers some interesting insights and interpretations of six Shakespearean tragedies and, in the final lecture, some thoughts about the later plays. Her discussions of the relationships between characters are illuminating, and she has some original and thoughtful comments on the role of women in the plays. However, I found Professor Kinney difficult to listen to. She reads her lectures as if they were a dramatic script, adding pauses and emphasis for dramatic effect rather than for comprehension. She often pauses in the middle of a thought rather than at the end of a phrase. Often, I could not tell when she was finished quoting a play and reverting to her lecture, as the tone of her voice and the style of her vocalization did not change. There was one point, in the second Lear lecture, when she appeared to depart from her text to offer an aside, and there was an immediate change in the tone of her voice and her manner of speaking. I wish she had done all of the lectures in this style as it was much easier to understand. In the video she is almost always looking to the side (presumable at a teleprompter) and rarely looks at her audience. I believe it would be worthwhile to listen to the lectures on specific plays once again before attending a performance, but would have trouble recommending the full course because of the difficult presentation.
Date published: 2018-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought provoking ... makes one want to re-read Strongly encourage anyone who loves literature and Shakespeare to listen to or watch this course. One may not agree with everything said ( I read some other reviews), but the course will lead to a richer appreciation of Shakespeare's tragedies and provoke thought. It will also lead to an enhanced enjoyment of performances. Professor Kinney is a first rate professor. I was disappointed to see that this was her only course.
Date published: 2018-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Shakespeare from a British Perspective Very enthusiastic instructor whose British English goes well with Shakespeare. She explains ideas and themes from the Tragedies and then performs parts of the plays as evidence to prove her words. She also clarifies the meanings of some of the words whose current usage is rare, unclear or changed. There are four lectures on each play which is enough for a basic understanding of each but does not satisfy the urge to learn more. Professor Connor's course How to Read and Understand Shakespeare is distinct from this course but complementary. In both it is a joy to hear parts of the plays performed.
Date published: 2018-03-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from GREAT course One of the best courses and teachers on the site!!
Date published: 2018-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from loved it The professor did an excellent job in making these plays come alive for me. Her reading of the lines helped make sense of his phrases in a way I hadn't really understood before. My experience of most of the plays has been through reading them, rather than seeing them performed, so perhaps this is why I found her reading so enlightening. Her course also helped me appreciate how psychologically rich his characters are.
Date published: 2018-01-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly enjoyed. Shakespeare is a gap in my learning. This course, tragedies, filled an important part of that gap. Prof Kinney spoke with passion and kept me interested and looking forward to my next walk (when I listen to my downloads).
Date published: 2017-11-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nice synopsis Nice synopsis of shakespearian tragedies. I only read a few while in school and this course filled me in on the rest
Date published: 2017-11-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Solid Entry Into a Deep Topic I have read many of Shakespeare's works and always been drawn to his tragedies for their complex characters, plots, stories and meanings. In this series Prof. Kinney is offering her interpretation of Shakespeare's tragedies and it is important you know this going in to the series because these are her views, opinions and understandings. This is not to say I agreed or disagreed with all of her opinions but it is to remind the listener this is less about history and more about "reading in-between the lines" literally. I found this series to be very thoughtful, well-researched and fair. Of course there are a few biases and assumptions that bleed into the presentation from time to time; but on a topic such as this it would be almost impossible to not present the material with some type of bias and personal opinion. As far as the professors choices in what she decided to address, focus on and analyze I felt she had a thoughtful approach to these tragedies and most of all gave the listener a some deeper topics to consider as the re-read or watch these works.
Date published: 2017-11-02
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