ENGLISH 404: Shakespeare

Enigmatic Shakespeares
Fall, 2013   English 404 / 604   MW 3:45-5:00
Norton Shakespeare
This course considers a representative range of Shakespearean dramatic works, including tragedies, comedies, and a romance. We will give our readings direction and shape by attempting to identify, for each of the plays we encounter, a central enigma. We will also identify lesser enigmas that revolve around these central ones. Critics have used the phrase problem plays to describe those texts that cannot be easily described as either tragic or comic. If we think about problems as paradoxes, enigmas, or irresolvable ambiguities, however, we can describe almost all of Shakespeare’s plays as problem plays. In fact, the way in which Shakespeare directs readers (or viewers) toward intractable human dilemmas accounts, at least in part, for his enduring popularity.

We will ask questions that prompt an investigation into how Shakespeare’s plays construct these enigmas. Why do the plays invite interpretations then undermine them with other possibilities? What problems do the plays raise that they then refuse to resolve? What emotions defy understanding? What phenomena are beyond reason? How do Shakespeare’s characters undermine the concept of “character” itself? How does rhetoric regularly exceed the intentions of the speaker?

Enigmas will serve as touchstones, but they need not limit our investigation. As we work our way through the semester, we will discuss cultural contexts, literary precedents, generic form, rhetorical craft, gendered representations, and other concerns as the individual plays offer them for our consideration. In this sense, our course will serve as a survey of the depth and breadth of Shakespeare’s work.
  • Gain fluency in reading, interpreting, and discussing Shakespeare's works
  • Consider formal differences and shared concerns among Shakespearean genres
  • Acquire terms and techniques for analyzing "enigmas" in Shakespeare
  • Situate the plays in Shakespeare's cultural context as well as our own
  • Practice close reading, research skills, and written analysis