OpenUW: A series of free courses presented by UW Educational Outreach
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 Part 1
Part One: Historical Background
 Part 2
Part Two: A Midsummer Night's Dream
 Part 3
Part Three: Twelfth Night
The Comedies of Shakespeare*


Shakespeare's Comedies


Why Study Shakespeare?

Reading Shakespeare is a challenging process; it asks us to follow the immediate action even as we work carefully through the figures of speech with which characters interpret the action and justify their own actions in it. At the same time, any character or explanation of the action is subject to radical reinterpretation when we see the character in other settings (which often test the character's stated beliefs against his or her subsequent actions) or when the beliefs of one character are compared with the beliefs and rationalizations offered by parallel characters. Initially convincing and eloquent "talk" is always juxtaposed to the character's ability to subsequently "walk the walk."

A student once wrote to me about the aura that surrounds the work of Shakespeare. The student was curious to explore the author's work but had feelings of trepidation about confronting the difficulties of Shakespearean language. I told the student that I often encounter those same difficulties. So--given the tidal wave of information and images available to us in our contemporary vernacular--why bother?

It's true that Shakespeare is separated from us by centuries of innovations in English usage and--for many United States university students--the likelihood that we grew up as speakers of American English, British English's scruffy sibling. Equally important, Shakespeare employs the English language with unparalleled fluency. He uses masterfully its depths and precision of meaning, its reflection of social class and regional colors, its braiding together of Romance and Germanic word stock, its synthesis of Classical, Renaissance, and homespun literary forms, and the uncommon powers of expressive richness that result when written and spoken English are fused in the literary discourse of the long reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James.

The problem lies more in making room for all the reflections and insights Shakespeare makes available to me than in puzzling out the literal meaning of what he says. . . .
Nonetheless, I find that when I slow down and read with care and patience, I encounter--not obscurity--but a wealth of meanings, folded and layered together in such a way that I experience uncommon insights, associations, and curiosities. The problem lies more in making room for all the reflections and insights Shakespeare makes available to me than in puzzling out the literal meaning of what he says (although there are times when that is the case). In the moment of reading I am not clueless about meaning; I am saturated with it.

At the same time I find that reading--even in the face of surface hesitations, errors, ambiguities, and doubts--is often possible and productive. The organization of events, strong narrative backbones, parallel plots and structural repetitions, and doublings of dramatic situation make vibrant tapestries of literary language cohere as resonant and deeply ordered dramatic worlds.

Rich forms of participation (for example, Shakespeare's plays within plays) become available. They involve me in works of artistic genius that constructed the terms and the vantage points by which their audiences came to know and understand their own times, and to place them in the experience of humankind past. These works reinvent and broaden the domain of humanity and reflection so greatly that--even when we find Shakespeare dated, prejudiced, or limited--we often do so using standards of imaginative openness and fertility that we and our culture learned from his work.

The famous literary scholar Harold Bloom has argued that Shakespeare in particular is the inventor of our humanity. I believe he means that Shakespeare's plays often allow us to examine the very foundations on which our view of ourselves stands, and that they provide us with the gift of renewal through dramatic re-examination rather than passive and dogmatic compliance. If this is Bloom's intention, he is close to what makes these texts indispensable to me and, I think, to our culture.

At his best, Shakespeare shows us the imaginative work-in-progress of his time: recovering and reinventing the human in the face of what was to become an enlightening onslaught on the forms and institutions of British and European life. He provides an incredibly inclusive account of the social, political, and commercial invention of modern humanity.

In Shakespeare's theatre, as we read and observe; we are in fact at home. We engage the reflective webs of language and moral participation that have made us, and our predecessors over the course of a 300-year history of modernist uprooting, still profoundly responsive to the idea of affirming our humanity in inhuman worlds.

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Recommended Reading

The following is recommended reading for this OpenUW course:

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