What deepens your grasp of Old English grammar, improves your translation skills, and ends with a creative project? At times child’s play, at times deadly earnest (think of Oedipus and the Sphinx), enigmatic puzzles have fascinated us for many centuries. They were particularly prolific in the earliest literature in English, including over ninety poetic riddles in the Exeter Book. We will translate a number of such riddles, read many more in translation, and speculate on the philosophical questions they raise about language and meaning. The semester will end with a creative project. Prerequisite: one term of Old English.
Like any other plays, those by William Shakespeare pose serious challenges for actors, directors, designers, and audiences, problems they must solve in performance. Because Shakespeare’s plays have such a long history in the theater, they offer a unique window into ever-evolving performance aesthetics. In staging Shakespeare, artists always attempt to capture what they perceive as Shakespeare’s universal achievements and to amplify his work’s resonance for a contemporary audience. This seminar examines a history of Shakespeare in the English-speaking theater to illuminate how Shakespeare helps to shape theater and how the theater helps to make Shakespeare. We will read a number of Shakespeare’s works, but will attend not to literary interpretations of the texts, but rather to (a) the problems those texts create in performance and (b) how artists have solved those challenges over the past four centuries. In other words, we will explore both prior approaches to staging Shakespeare and what in Shakespeare’s plays makes them particularly difficult—and exciting—to stage.
Juliet, Rosalind, Portia, Ophelia, Isabella, Cressida, Cleopatra, Cordelia, Imogen, Volumnia, Lady Macbeth—the women of Shakespeare’s plays have become iconic figures, cited, admired, critiqued, and invoked in every generation. But in the English public theater of Shakespeare’s time no women were permitted to appear onstage. All these famous roles were played by boy actors; Shakespeare wrote their words and their stories—parts so often celebrated for their truth to nature-- knowing they would be performed by young men. In the cross-dressing plays, in which the heroine disguised herself as a boy, the boy actor would then be playing a girl playing the part of a boy. When actresses began to perform in Shakespeare’s plays, at the end of the seventeenth century, they immediately began to make the roles their own, and productions of Shakespeare were dominated, over the years, by female stars. In the mid-twentieth century feminist critics and theorists drew renewed attention to women and gender in Shakespeare, producing a rich and diverse set of books and articles, many now regarded as classic. And in what might have been anticipated as a telling reversal, contemporary directors and performers have staged productions in which major male roles, like King Lear and Prospero, are played by women.
The seminar will read and discuss a number of Shakespeare’s plays, together with criticism, theory, and stage history, to see how women—characters, actors, critics, audiences—have shaped our understanding of Shakespeare, and how Shakespeare has influenced ideas about women, both over the years and in the present day.
In this course we will read some of the most significant works of literature written in the British Isles before 1700, whose influence continues to be felt in present-day writers. We will trace the early evolution of different genres - romance, epic, drama, lyric - and the emergence of English from an underdog position to a fully realized literary language. We will read some of the classics alongside some of their lesser known interlocutors, while exploring how these texts respond to and shape issues of their time, including war, shifting political regimes, national, racial, and religious identities, and changing attitudes to gender and sexuality. Come for the grounding in the great works of early British literature, stay for the dragons, genderfluid knights, dark comedies about selling your soul, and surprisingly racy sonnets.