Shakespeare’s big ideas

Fourth post in a series on designing and delivering my intro-Shakespeare course for 160 undergraduates, starting this month. 

Does Shakespeare studies have a few cardinal ideas that everyone should know? Let’s see: there are his three main genres (comedy, tragedy, history); and his reputation as a natural, unschooled genius. There’s the tension between his plays and his non-dramatic poetry, and the historical temptation to read them for biographical details.

You get the idea. The point is, it’s hard to imagine teaching Shakespeare without touching on a set of common ideas. Ask a hundred scholars to free-associate and we’ll come up with a pretty comprehensive list of knowledge we want our students to possess by the end of a course – at least, an introductory course.

Set aside your objection that teaching in the humanities is more about teaching skills than knowledge. Sure, but there’s knowledge to impart, too.

Probably for that reason, lists like these are less common in the humanities than in the sciences. Earth sciences’ professional associations develop lists for their members (like “Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air, and life”), but I don’t think you’ll see the Shakespeare Association of America do that anytime soon.

In the past, I would have taught a Shakespeare course that touched on these ideas in passing, but was structured more like a greatest-hits tour: some Hamlet here, a smattering of sonnets there, a condensed history of the Elizabethan theatre illustrated by some footage of Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V.” Along the way, students will learn about his genres and his verse and his material history.

This year I’ll still cover some of those subjects, but I’ll start with the big ideas first. I’ve already written about how they informed my choice of texts, but that’s just the beginning. They’re how I designed the exercises, the assignments, and the final exam – because it’s pointless to teach ideas if you don’t assess whether students grasp them.

And if you look at my list, you’ll see that I go beyond knowledge-transferring to skills-fostering. The first one, deliberately, is about how we read and critique Shakespeare – which looks very different in 2015 than in 1995, when I was an undergraduate.

I’m happy with my list, but I’m not pretending it’s comprehensive. Shakespeare studies is so productive as a field of study precisely because we’re always contesting things, problematizing and contextualizing and questioning.

An ideas-first approach doesn’t come naturally to advanced scholars in the humanities. I only hope my students will outgrow this scaffolding on the way to gaining expertise of their own. But we have to start somewhere.

Leave a Reply