ENGLISH 115 & 116: Shakespeare’s Early Plays & Sonnets / Later Plays

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As the bulletin copy indicates, “Shakespeare, The Early Plays and Sonnets” covers works from Shakespeare’s early his career as a poet and dramatist in Elizabethan England. In addition to formal and stylistic elements of these works, my ten sections of this course have examined the political and social issues that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were compelled to explore on stage. Our discussions of the historical and cultural contexts in which these works shed light on Shakespeare’s representations of gender, social hierarchy, and nation, as well as his interest in structures of religious and political authority and in such concepts as rebellion and revenge. The ten sections I have taught were not always the same with respect to major assignments; I also changed my textbook adoption from the single Bedford Texts and Contexts Editions to an anthology, The Norton Shakespeare, which necessarily altered my approach to teaching historical material. For the most part, my sections included the same primary texts: select sonnets, Venus and Adonis, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, and Hamlet. With this particular list, I cannot claim to have introduced any radical innovation to our Shakespeare course as it appears “on the books,” though I suspect that my inclusion of Venus and Adonis is something of a departure. While I certainly teach the sonnets in my course, I primarily address the playwright’s poetry in a work that is not, by any stretch, a sonnet. I like to use the long poem because it provides a nice transition between Shakespeare’s poetic worlds and the worlds he created for the stage. Full of dialogue and action—vertical and horizontal movement of a distinctly dramatic sort––Venus and Adonis allows us to see how poetry creates character just like plays do. And the story itself helps inform how we think about the comedy’s women and their suitors by presenting a strikingly different wooing scenario in which a woman overpowers (but also fails to seduce) the young man that she desires; Shakespeare’s eroticized depiction of Adonis’ deadly encounter with the Boar also helps us think about the language of male friendship, competition, and love in the other works. I emphasize close reading and critical writing in this course in formal paper assignments as well as multiple in-class activities. I also teach historical contexts by way of lectures and supplementary readings in the editions of textbooks, asking students to situate the plays within these contexts in written assignments and exams. In developing assignments for the course, I am always mindful that many students take the course for distribution credit; as an “LT” course, it must address a population that may not consist of English majors and minors. [See my Commonplace Book Assignment, which I wrote and began using in my 2012 courses.]

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English 116  course examines the second half of Shakespeare’s career, including the comedies, tragedies and romances written between 1599 and 1613. Like all of our sections of 116, I imagine, my sections of English 116 emphasized particular shifts in Shakespeare’s dramatic style, preferred genres, and subject matter as the Tudor age ended and the Stuart dynasty began. My particular version of the course included Twelfth Night, Othello, Macbeth, and The Tempest, using the first three works to witness the darkening of Shakespeare’s comedy and embrace his tragic themes. The final text in the list above, The Tempest was not the end of the course, but rather, the beginning of a larger conversation about the genre of romance that took place in the final weeks of the semester. Indeed, the class starts with a comedy derived from a romantic source (the story of Apolonius & Silla, from Barnabe Riche’s Farewell to the Military Profession [1581]) and ends with students reading their choice of The Two Noble Kinsmen, Cymbeline, or Pericles, three plays bound together in an inexpensive edition. Two of these so-called “problem” plays likely include contributions from other dramatists and so they are often excluded from college reading lists; I like to bring these works into the mix so that I can help my students interrogate notions of canonicity and authorship that they have, perhaps, taken previously for granted. Additionally, as a class, we can get a much deeper sense of what the genre looks like when we are able to compare several examples of it. I find that students are often surprised (and sometimes dismayed) by the way Shakespeare’s latest plays are structured; but they also are reassured––and newly circumspect––when their classmates relate having similar experiences with their chosen romance. In my four sections of the course thus far, students wrote three essays and took a comprehensive final exam. They also worked collaboratively in small groups to present on the cultural contexts in which one of the assigned plays was produced; groups of students taught a 45-minute lesson for each play, noting how those contexts illuminate and complicate our understanding of the dramatic text.

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