Approaching Shakespeare: A Review

Prior to beginning my official studies, I thought it would be wise to brush up on my Shakespeare. As a teacher, I have become incredibly well-acquainted with a portion of Shakespeare’s works — Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and Twelfth Night — and only because I taught them at some time or other. In the evolution of my teaching of Shakespeare in Drama class, I did some digging, first for monologues and soliloquys, later for 2- or 3-handed scenes for use in class, but even these were peripheral to my knowledge: I was skimming for length and equity of parts, knowing not much about the plays other than what I had remembered.

I did take a survey course in University about Shakespeare’s works, but it amounted to a play (or two) a week over the course of two semesters, so while I had, in fact, read all of Shakespeare’s plays, I remembered very few. Most of the comedies blended together, and the histories were a complete blur.

I knew I had to brush up prior to the start of the program.

I searched online for some means of reacquainting myself with the canon, other than just reading the plays over. I had discovered iTunes U when I was travelling on my year off (feel free to visit the site and check out my travel blog) , and I tried it out – with Cosmology 101 from UCBerkeley. It was a whim, but an interesting means for study.

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Nothing I found online was suitable, until I came across Dr. Emma Smith’s Approaching Shakespeare course on iTunes. Dr. Smith, a scholar at Oxford University, lectures not on what the plays are about, but about what questions they raise, and how we might answer them. Her questions are quite provocative – from Antonio’s presence in Twelfth Night and its implications for sexuality to agency in Macbeth to whether or not Prospero represents Shakespeare in The Tempest. Not only are her lectures engaging – whether or not, as she herself suggests, you have read the plays – it provided me a lens through which to consider the plays, and a means through which I could approach them rather than the usual “What does this phrase / word / image” frame I use to teach it.

Unfortunately, due to commitments and the start of the school year at work, I only made it as far as The Comedy of Errors. I do plan, once things settle down, to finish the series, not because I have to, but because I want to. I find Dr. Smith’s style engaging and her questions intriguing, and more than this, it makes me want to discover more.

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