ENGLISH 291 A: Shakespeare’s Wars and Warriors

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This Graduate-level course (offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, and Spring 2010) examined two of Shakespeare’s most dramatized subjects: warfare and the soldiers who engaged in it. His portrayals of these figures in action enabled discussions of the literary aesthetics of violence and battle and the capacity or limitations of the English stage to portray them. We also grappled with the issue of personal responsibility in national affairs, not just as an early modern problem, but as a postmodern dilemma that Shakespeare’s works prompt us to explore in our own complicated world. The course reading lists included history plays and tragedies, two genres that the bard apparently found most fitting for plays about warfare. We began with one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (and that bears evidence of multiple hands or collaboration), I Henry VI (1592). With compelling figures like Talbot and Joan la Pucelle, and depictions of both the English and French armies, this play helped lay out several lines of inquiry that would be important with later works. For instance, Joan’s status as Amazon-cum-witch enabled discussions of gender and the roles women play in times of war that would inform our readings of female characters in later plays, from Lady Percy and Lady Mortimer in 1 Henry IV (1594) to Lady Macbeth (ca. 1605) and Volumnia in Coriolanus (ca. 1608). Additionally, the perfect warrior Talbot and his son provide useful analogues for the recently-deceased Henry V and his disappointing successor, a Christian ruler utterly lacking his father’s stomach for war. Reading about Henry V’s funeral at the beginning of 1 Henry VI changes the stakes of reading Henry V , for like Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audiences, we know that France is always already lost.

Together, 1 Henry VI and the plays of the second Tetralogy raise questions about the function of war in English history and historiography, as well as the role that the institution of monarchy plays in perpetuating it. The class also examined comic treatments of war, both in Shakespeare’s plays (focusing especially on figures in the Second Tetralogy such as Falstaff, Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym) and in brief skirmishes with light-humored works about war by his contemporaries, including the anonymous Famous Victories of Henry V and Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. We continued our examination of war and governments as we shifted to the tragedies, focusing on monarchy and tyranny in Macbeth and on war and republicanism in Coriolanus. As striking contrasts to aristocratic soldiers like Talbot and royal soldiers like Henry V, the titular figures in the tragedies also allowed us to discuss the extent to which a soldier’s temperament and experience on the field renders him unfit to rule or ill-equipped for other forms of public service. Critical Readings in the course gave students the opportunity to learn more about military issues in the early modern period, but they also provided good models of academic writing and research.Students read significant portions of a scholarly monograph as well as several articles, describing the former in a Précis and the latter in an annotated bibliography. As the developed their own critical arguments about the works we studied, students gained experience writing and writing about their work in several conventional forms, including a research proposal and an abstract. Students also had ample opportunity to play around with Early English Books Online in a “scavenger hunt” assignment. All of this work, of course, helped prepare students for their final paper for the course, a conference paper- or article-length critical study on wars and warriors.

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