Instructor: Joseph Shack Day & Time: Mondays & Wednesdays 9-10:15am Course Website This course serves as an introduction to Old English, the language spoken and written by the inhabitants of early medieval England from the fifth century until around 1100. Although many of its linguistic features are recognizable in Modern English, Old English must be learned as a foreign language. The first half of the course focuses on learning the grammar of Old English. We begin translating short texts in the third week, before progressing to more complex prose and poetry as the semester continues. Our readings will consist of “classroom” texts used for the education of medieval clergymen and monks: Æflric’sColloquy, an early dramatic text that facilitated language learning by means of a fictional dialogue; scientific texts explaining the workings of the natural world; wisdom poetry that sought to catalogue how members of society ought to act; riddles that offered playful intellectual exercises their audience. Alongside translation, some time will be devoted to discussion organized around our translations and a few select readings to familiarize students with early medieval England and its social, intellectual, and political contexts.
Five Shakespearean Pieces: The seminar will focus on five plays (Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Henry V, The Tempest, and Merchant of Venice) with special attention to staging, literariness, and location.
The First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was published in 1623, seven years after the playwright’s death. A memorial poem by Ben Jonson, included in the book, described Shakespeare, famously, as “not of an age, but for all time.” This course will argue that the works of Shakespeare—like all great works of literature—are both “of an age” and “for all time.”
What we often call “timelessness” in literature and art is in fact more accurately described as multiple timeliness: the way a work can speak to its moment, whether the moment is that of its conception, its production, or its reception. The plays of Shakespeare, whether they are comedies, histories, tragedies, or romances, have their lives in at least three time periods: the time and place in which they are written (Shakespeare’s England during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James), the time and place in which they are set (medieval Scotland in Macbeth, ancient Rome in Julius Caesar), and the time and place in which they are produced, seen, or read (“now,” whether that means nineteenth century England, twenty-first century Cambridge MA, or global Shakespeare today).
Over the centuries since the plays were written, Shakespeare’s plays have almost uncannily connected with developments in social and political history and in human character. It is not an exaggeration to say that in some cases Shakespearean characters, scenes, and phrases, have influenced the way subsequent ages have thought about people and politics, and even how they have acted, or reacted, to historical events. Like the eyes in a portrait that are described as following the viewer around the room, the plays of Shakespeare seem always to be trained upon the audience, no matter what the time or place.
This course will discuss Shakespeare’s multiple timeliness and the effect of “timelessness” that is generated by it—and, by extension and analogy (including some analogies within the plays) the way “timeliness” and “timelessness” intersect in the production and consumption of works of art.
An introduction to major works in English literature from Beowulf through the seventeenth century, the course will explore various ways that new literatures are created in response to cultural forces that shape poets, genres, and group identity. We will hone close reading skills, introduce rhetorical tropes, and develop techniques of critical writing.
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.
This course focuses on representations of race, religion, and cross-cultural contact in literature written in western Europe between approximately 800 and 1450 CE, before colonial contact with the Americas. During this period, diplomats, pilgrims, and merchants crisscrossed Europe and Asia, generating fascination with far-away lands and a booming trade in exotic goods; Christian kingdoms of western Europe formed uneasy alliances under the banner of a shared religion to invade Muslim territories and sack Jewish communities in the Crusades; and a global pandemic spread via fleas on ship rats, killing hundreds of thousands and fomenting xenophobic violence. We will read texts from a variety of genres, including religious plays, romances about inter-faith marriage, chansons de geste (poems celebrating deeds in war, often grotesquely violent), and ‘armchair travel’ guides. We will trace the emergence of modern concepts of race and ethnicity in the way medieval Christian writers represented religious difference in/as bodily difference; develop a critical, historically-situated toolkit for analysing medieval concepts and terms around race, ethnicity, and nation; and analyse the role of the middle ages in current conversations about race in America.
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.