Shakespeare: The Word and the Action

Course No. 273
Professor Peter Saccio, Ph.D.
Dartmouth College
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Course No. 273
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Course Overview

Shakespeare is the leading playwright, and probably the leading writer, in Western civilization. His works are one of the greatest achievements of the human mind and spirit. And yet, for many of us they remain a closed book. Why? Too often, we were force-fed Shakespeare as adolescents—when our own dramas were all-consuming. The language of Shakespeare is 400 years old: even as adults, reading or seeing a play may seem like listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and missing half the notes.

The crowds that filled the Globe to witness his plays in Elizabethan times enjoyed his words easily. Perhaps we've forgotten how to listen to his language, and we approach his works unaware of the larger cultural, political, and spiritual context that give them their full, rich meaning. Professor Peter Saccio is well suited to bring you back into Shakespeare's world, and tune you into what he calls "Shakespeare's wavelength."

The Teacher and His Plan

Teaching both as a lecturer and as a trained actor and director, and assisted by two Shakespearean actors, Professor Saccio brings the Bard's sonnets and plays to life with astute and passionate performances. As you hear him effortlessly deliver Elizabethan language with the proper meter, emphasis, intonation, and emotion, you'll experience the pleasure that comes with true mastery.

Professor Saccio also prepares you to read or watch the plays by orienting you to Shakespeare's use of multiple plots, lines of action, and the sometimes outmoded forms of human behavior—such as courtship in Elizabethan England—that arise in the plays.

Pure Language, Pure Feeling

Professor Saccio devotes two of his lectures to Shakespeare's sonnets, fusing an understanding of their technical elements (meter, rhyme, alliteration, pacing) with an appreciation for the torrent of variegated feeling that underlies them.

The sonnets are often misunderstood to be an autobiographical narrative of Shakespeare's personal life. Actually, they are something much greater than that. John Keats praised Shakespeare for his "negative capability," his capacity to inhabit and explore multiple moods, emotions, and perspectives, without committing to one. Only someone of his level of sensitivity and imagination could write on one occasion:

Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence

... and then fume in another sonnet:

Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame.

Love's Language

Shakespeare had much more to say about love than could be contained in the space of a sonnet. Professor Saccio shows how he used comedies, romances, and even tragedies to reflect on love's every facet:

  • In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the characters' speeches reveal love as absurd, irrational, changeable, wonderful, and dangerous. The characters woo in a distant forest, away from society, lest their foibles undo the conventions of society. Amid piquant barbs on sexual politics, we find farcical spectacle, as the goddess Titania pledges undying love to the peasant Bottom, who is transformed into a donkey!
  • The Winter's Taleexplores the dark side of our passions, as irrational affection becomes unreasoning jealousy and rage. King Leontes destroys his family with rash accusations of infidelity. Repentant, he must seek the love that expresses itself in forgiveness, and that contains a touch of magic.
  • As You Like It is a study of lovers themselves, and the different kinds that make the world go round. You'll meet the earthy Touchstone and Audrey, the witty and erotically charged Celia and Oliver, the Petrarchan formalists Phebe and Silvius, and our heroes Rosalind and Orlando, who know love is madness, but embrace the sweet nonsense nonetheless.
Action and the Meaning of History

Shakespeare was acutely aware of the importance of history, and not just of events but of ideas. His tragedies and histories are meditations on the changing world around him, and of the eternal issues of character and human nature. Professor Saccio closely examines this world where actions and ideas intersect, and raises profound and unexpected questions:

  • Richard III is a classic villain, but somewhat disturbingly, also a Renaissance figure. Schooled in Machiavellian tactics of self-promotion, deception, and betrayal, he is a cautionary example of what it means to be a "self-made" man. Yet he says he is "determinate" to be a villain. Is this a Calvinist nod to the limits of free will and responsibility?
  • Henry V is often seen as the anti-Hamlet, a man of action and a military leader. But is he, or any king, really capable of making his own history? The son of a usurper, he is oppressed by the weight of history, of expectation, and by his own overwhelming sense of responsibility. In a famous scene he tries on the crown of his dying father—but is this ambition or an attempt to wrestle with his own inexorable fate?
  • Can a man be a hero without a cause or a country? In Coriolanus, Shakespeare takes the great ideal of the action hero—and complicates it. Spurned by Rome, Coriolanus turns against it, then comes to realize that there is no victory for a man outside his polis. He yields to his mother's plea to spare Rome, knowing that its enemies will punish his weakness. "O my mother," he cries, "You have won a happy victory to Rome; But for your son—believe it, O, believe it, Most dangerously you have with him prevail'd."
Of His Time, Ahead of His Time

One of the great rewards of reading Shakespeare is the discovery of his relevance to our times. Throughout the course, Professor Saccio offers startling and novel analyses of the plays, in addition to explicating more traditional views.

For example, The Tempest is widely remembered as Shakespeare's curtain call, a last display of his poetic magic before leaving the stage, with the wizard Prospero acting as Shakespeare's double. But the play also wrestled with many contemporary issues. It was written at the height of the Age of Exploration, and Shakespeare made use of reports from the Island of Bermuda and the Virginia Colony. It can be seen as a critique of colonization and European rapacity, of modern man's capacity to alter and exploit nature. Prospero's effort to tutor the native Caliban strongly echoes the civilizing mission of many European colonizers.

To read Shakespeare is to take a daunting journey into a perpetually undiscovered country that reinvents itself with every visit. But with Professor Saccio as your guide, it will become a familiar pleasure. To quote Caliban:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears ...
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.


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16 lectures
 |  Average 43 minutes each
  • 1
    Shakespeare's Wavelengths
    Shakespeare's wavelengths are conventions of speech and action that he used to construct his plays. The first lecture focuses on speech: words and their arrangement. Examples of prose, blank verse, and rhymed verse are drawn from Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The lecture shows how poetic meter and its variations may relate to the subject matter of a given speech or scene or to the feelings expressed by a character. x
  • 2
    The Multiple Actions of A Midsummer Night's Dream
    The lecture discusses A Midsummer Night's Dream, emphasizing plot construction. Analogous actions constitute a primary wavelength in Shakespearean drama. Each of the plot lines in Dream concerns love; each displays aspects of love as personal emotions and powerful forces in society and the universe. The lecture concludes by showing the diversity of Dream organized into binaries of place such as court/forest and sunlight/moonlight; binaries of emotion such as duty/desire and reason/madness; and binaries of existence such as illusion/constancy. x
  • 3
    The Form of Shakespeare's Sonnets
    This lecture introduces Shakespeare's Sonnets as a volume of 154 poems that we may read as a series of lyric meditations on love, representing Shakespeare's most disciplined writing. He maintains the standard English (or "Shakespearean") sonnet form: 14 lines of iambic pentameter verse arranged in three quatrains and a closing couplet. The lecture explores what Shakespeare was able to do within that limited form. x
  • 4
    Love in Shakespeare's Sonnets
    This lecture explores five of Shakespeare's sonnets and asserts that the poet does not have a particular philosophy of love. Sonnet 116 offers a resounding definition of love endorsed by many readers while making most of its assertions in negatives rather than in concrete positives. x
  • 5
    Love and Artifice in Love's Labor's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing
    In this lecture we move from the individual voice of love as expressed in the sonnets to the social words and actions of love in two comedies. The male suitors of Love's Labor's Lost try to break through the artificiality of verbal courtship to something more natural but are outstripped by the larger realities of time, death, and seasonal change. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's characteristic use of multiple plot lines works out the conflict between artifice and nature in two contrasted actions. x
  • 6
    As You Like It
    Another wavelength Shakespeare used repeatedly is the fairy tale. This lecture explains the advantages of fairy tale as a base for dramatic plots. It explores four kinds of response we may have to such material and shows how Shakespeare deliberately prompts them all. x
  • 7
    The Battles of Henry VI
    The three plays named after Henry VI introduce two fresh senses of the word "action": the large patterns of action by which Shakespeare organized a trilogy of plays, and the physicality we see on stage when the plays are performed. This lecture explores thematic patterns: how the actions have been organized to make specific points about politics and warfare in each play. Stage directions that a reader may pass over lightly present graphic images and actions to a theater audience. The lecture closes by contemplating the deformed physique of Richard of Gloucester. x
  • 8
    Richard III and the Renaissance
    This lecture explores Shakespeare's characterization of Richard III as marking important aspects of the early modern era. Shakespeare's greatest innovation in the received account of Richard was to make him a conscious actor or role-player who constantly refashions himself to accomplish his political goals. We relate this discovery of the player-king to new political theories by Niccolo Machiavelli, to Renaissance ideas about human freedom, and to the breakdown of ideas about fixed order. x
  • 9
    History and Family in Henry IV
    We delve further into the workings of human action in history. Is Richard's decision to be a villain a free choice or a Calvinistically predestined event? Similarly, Henry IV, Part II asks whether history and the consequences of prior action deprive men of free choice. The first three acts of the play lack action: four major characters appear trapped by their own pasts. The lecture then examines three of these men in the Shakespearean wavelength of parallel scenes. The play thus highlights relationships between fathers and sons. x
  • 10
    Action in Hamlet
    This lecture plumbs Hamlet on the matter of action. It investigates five aspects of the play's action, each one demonstrating a characteristic Shakespearean skill. The action is vivid; it explores alternatives: Ophelia and Laertes, like Hamlet, act in response to the death of a beloved father. The action can be suddenly and mysteriously arrested, and it can be utterly ambiguous, as in the confrontation of Hamlet with his mother. The action can also be conclusive—witness the exciting and satisfying releases of energy in the final scene. x
  • 11
    Coriolanus—The Hero Alone
    Coriolanus offers an experience different from other tragedies and requires getting on a new wavelength. The hero is a direct and uncomplicated man living in a relatively primitive Rome; his tragic flaw (pride) leads to a tragic fall. The simplicity of the play leads to an especially powerful effect. The play also raises the question of whether a man can remain human when he is cut off from society. x
  • 12
    Change in Antony and Cleopatra
    In words and actions, Shakespeare creates an unusual world in Antony and Cleopatra, a fluid world in which nearly everything changes shape and place. This lecture tallies the unusually high number of events that change the appearance of the stage. The language of the play stresses contradiction, transformation, paradox, shape-changing, longing, and other forms of mutability. In all this flux, only two things reach stability at the end: Normally mutable Fortune becomes constant in favor of Octavius Caesar. Cleopatra herself becomes constant—in death. x
  • 13
    The Plot of Cymbeline
    Cymbeline adds to our sense of what Shakespearean action can be by providing the most extravagant and complicated plot Shakespeare ever created. Some have found the story ridiculous, but it is nonetheless constructed with extraordinary skill. The action is always clear to the audience, the bizarre development provides a roller coaster of emotional opportunities, and the final scene ties up all the threads. A detailed pattern of early virtue, sin, symbolic death, repentance, and rebirth proves, on different scales, to be a repeating pattern in the play and give the audience the experience of life in a providential world. x
  • 14
    Nature and Art in The Winter's Tale
    This lecture introduces the genre of romance, which include Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale; it is a capacious genre that can combine actions characteristic of comedy, history, and tragedy. We explore the rich relationship of nature and art in The Winter's Tale. Nature provides the means by which humans create art and civilization; art in turn extends, fulfills, and preserves worthy things in nature. x
  • 15
    Three Kinds of Tempest
    The Tempest, a romance like Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, strips down the constituent actions to great simplicity; the leading character has godlike powers; and Caliban is a semihuman creature. These circumstances lead playgoers and scholars to strenuous efforts of interpretation: The play may deal with the imperialist or colonialist movement of early modern Europe; it may explore the possibilities for magical or protoscientific power; it may be a Christian comedy of forgiveness. x
  • 16
    History and Henry VIII
    This play demonstrates Shakespeare's continuous experimentalism with, at the end of his career, yet another mode of dramatic action. Henry VIII combines history with the patterns of romance. It is spectacular history in which the title character is a godlike personage with a mostly inaccessible mind. The more interesting characters, Buckingham, Katherine, and the defeated Wolsey, are interesting precisely when they split from history. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 96-page printed course guidebook
  • Selected poems
  • English rulers to the time of William Shakespeare
  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Peter Saccio

About Your Professor

Peter Saccio, Ph.D.
Dartmouth College
Dr. Peter Saccio is Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies and Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College. He also served as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University and at University College in London. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University. At Dartmouth, Professor Saccio was honored with the J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching. Professor Saccio is the author of...
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Shakespeare: The Word and the Action is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 46.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful introduction to Shakespeare's World I thoroughly enjoyed this course. One feature that seems to have bothered some other reviewers is Saccio's approach to the material. This is not a play by play, scene by scene analysis. For me, this was novel and helped me to a better understanding of all of Shakespeare, and how the plays (and sonnets) relate to each other. His enthusiasm and dramatics might put some off, however, I thought it all added to richness and analysis of this course. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2020-07-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Poor quality The video has black-out gaps throughout. At times, the professor does not know where the camera is and is speaking to the side.
Date published: 2020-02-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A single lesson alone is worth the purchase I bought this course t prepare me for a Shakespeare discussion group I've joined. We're covering Cymbeline right now, and "The Plot of Cymbeline" is the only lesson that I've seen/heard right now, It was very, very illuminating.
Date published: 2019-09-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Painful example of dissection This professor focuses on the mechanical aspects of writing .All form and no content. He completely omits the thought, feelings, motivations, and insists to know the sentence length or rhyme scheme is to understand the writing. The beauty of the thought is omitted. It is a worthless exercise in the professors knowledge of the form. He slices and dices the beauty of the content with great glee. I am sorry I wasted my money.
Date published: 2019-09-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Knowledgeable professor I have enjoyed all of Professor Saccio's courses on Shakespeare. He knows the material and can keep the listener engaged. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2019-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great instructor I have avoided Shakespeare for over 7 decades, so I can not comment on much of the content, except it is clearly presented. I can comment on college professors - give Saccio five stars. I can also comment on how he weaves theater, English and Greek history, and the dubious legends of 1600-1700 England together. I'll give him 4.5 stars there. I plan to find his other Teaching Co courses on Shakespeare. And the DVD production doesn't distract either. A rare combination. Go for it.
Date published: 2018-10-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Actors spoiled the lectures for me. The actors which the lecturer has in speaking roles spoiled the lectures for me. The lecturer has added to my store of culture. He knows his subject in some depth though he referred to Queen Elizabeth the First as Head of the Church when unlike the Pope, she was merely Supreme Governor and Christ the Head.
Date published: 2018-04-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from More words, less acting It began well enough, but by the end of the second lecture, Prof. Saccio's style had begun to grate on my ears, and in the eighth, I decided it had strutted and fretted several hours too many upon my stage. The problem wasn't the substance of the presentations -- though they wandered into stagecraft a few times too many to hold my interest -- but in the style of it all. All that hyper-crisp articulation, all those attention-grabbing pauses, and all that artificial emotion combined to make the lectures sound like a professor acting or an actor professing. Wouldst those techniques droppeth from heaven like the gentle rain instead of a tropical storm. Today, the presentation got in the way of the material to such a degree that I stopped listening. I'll probably go back and finish the course, but reluctantly and not soon.
Date published: 2017-10-09
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