Gen Ed 1153. Shakespeare's Timeliness

Instructor: Marjorie Garber
Day & Time: Mondays & Wednesdays 10:30-11:45am 

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.