In 2011, the film Anonymous made the niche position of a group of Shakespeare-authorship deniers called the Anti-Straffordians into mainstream entertainment with high production values. But the so-called authorship-debates aren’t really debates amongst experts in the field; there’s simply no evidence for the claim that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. There are, however, several other aspects of Shakespeare’s career that remain mysterious even to scholars who have had access to the best surviving evidence. For instance, why does Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech in the 1603 Quarto version look and sound so different from those in the 1604 Quarto and 1623 Folio? Why does Shakespeare appear as the author of a 1598 Quarto of A Yorkshire Tragedy? What on earth is his poem The Phoenix and the Turtle about? Why is the structure and style of Pericles so strange? When and why did he start to collaborate with other playwrights? And what happened to the play called Cardenio, attributed to him and John Fletcher, whose performances were recorded as paid for by King James? Is it related, as some suggest, to Theobald’s Double Falsehood? Then, of course, there are also smaller-scale mysteries in every work that make up the bulk of Shakespeare criticism today–research on texts and contexts provides insight into the canon and allows us to raise new questions about very old works.
In addition to reading primary works and critical studies of various controversies and debates, graduate students in this class learned about early modern prosody by writing short blog posts on formal and cultural aspects of Shakespeare’s drama and poetry; they gained practice with historical research and the use of digital archives to engage with the problems and debates that these mysteries raise. Students enrolled in the MA in English Literature found that the course enhanced and complicated their existing sense of the so-called “Bard of Avon”; Students in the MFA in English improved their sensitivity to subtle shifts in style (while also destabilizing their sense of an author’s “personal” voice). Students in the MA in Education gained knowledge that allowed them to bring their classroom practices in line with contemporary scholarship, merging curricular standards with a new sense of historical and textual complexity.