EL 401, Shakespeare’s Game of Thrones: Power, Privilege, and Illusion



General reminders: these responses are due on Tuesday by class. Email preferred; hard copies are fine as well. Late papers not accepted.

Assignment 7: Free response.

Write on any aspect of Act 3 of Hamlet.

Assignment 6: Choose your play for your research paper!

For this week, a break! Rather than write a critical response, I’m asking you instead to choose the play that you’ll be focusing on for your term paper, and write a short response (you don’t need more than a paragraph) in which you detail why you’ve chosen this play: what issues it raises that interests you, what controversies, questions, and topics it explores, etc. You might also want to begin thinking about reading the plays in terms of Shakespeare’s source material. Once again, although you are very welcome to continue reading Shakespeare according to the theoretical approaches and topics we’ve discussed in class, you are also encouraged to approach your play in terms of your own unique interests. Finally, you can expect full credit if you give this assignment an honest effort.

Assignment 5: Using Sources II

In order to produce genuinely new and exciting readings, it is essential for literary scholars to go “outside the text”–to the archive of early modern books and manuscripts. In this assignment, I’m going to ask you to turn to the digital archive for your analysis. Choose a keyword or phrase from anywhere in 1 Henry IV (e.g., “shotten herring” or “popinjay”) and enter it into the EEBO TCP search engine (Early English Books Online–Text Creation Partnership). Poke around in the sources, discover the contexts in which the word or phrase is used, and return to I Henry IV to do a reading of the text based on what you’ve learned–“a poetics of the shotten herring,” perhaps, or “politique popinjays and other masculinities in 1 Henry IV“. 

Assignment 4: Falstaff and Performance

Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters, and a curious one at that for a “chronicle” or history play, because he isn’t historical–he never existed! True, he’s loosely based on a Lollard knight and “proto-Protestant” martyr named Sir John Oldcastle, and the character in early stage productions of 1 Henry IV likely bore that name, but Falstaff bears little if any resemblance to the historical Oldcastle. For this assignment, I want you to think about what this comic and fantastical character is doing in a sequel to Richard II–a play that is hardly comical. First, watch this clip from Orson Welles’s mash-up film of the tetralogy, Chimes at Midnight or Falstaff, and use it to think about the function of Falstaff in the thieving jest and the play extempore. If you wish, you may also want to consider how Welles’s interpretive choices reveal or emphasize some aspects of the play and suppress others, and how performance and adaptation (in this case, from stage to film) bring out new meanings in the text.

Assignment 3: The King’s Cleaved Body

When Nietzsche diagnosed the modern world with the sickness of nihilism, his argument was simple: the Christian God promised everything, but after the death of God, we are left with nothing. The “all or nothing” logic Nietzsche associated with modern nihilism is mirrored in Richard’s tragic fall, from the King who identifies his crown and his kingdom perhaps too fiercely with his own person, to the man stripped first of his title and authority and next of his sense of identity and even his personhood as such. As a result for Richard, the traumatic division between his personal body and the “body politic” or metaphysical/fictional body of the crown seems to result in the destruction of both. According to Kahn’s article, however, for Ernst Kantorowicz, the scholar who more than anyone drew critical attention the notion of the “king’s two bodies,” the realization that the “body politic” was a fiction was not merely debilitating but also “enabling”–that is, a fiction that was productive and creative, the groundwork of new human possibilities, individual and collective. Examining closely some passage or passages in the last two acts of the play, test this idea against the drama. Does the play endorse Richard’s nihilistic turn? Does Richard come to a “recognition”, in the classical Aristotelian sense of anagnorisis, that pushes him beyond nihilism? Does Bolingbroke represent a new kind of king, one who can avoid the tragic pitfalls of the king’s two bodies, and if so what kind of king is he?

Again, I want to stress that I’m not looking for a particular answer or even a particular approach to this prompt. You’re free to pursue your own angles and interests related to the topic above. Due Tuesday, as always. 

Assignment 2: Speech and Silence

For a first-time reader of Richard II, navigating Act 1 can be difficult. This is in part because Act 1 dramatizes political theater and ceremonies of masculinity that are rounded by silences, equivocations, boundaries and limits, and hidden agendas. First, please read the long note on p. 223 to understand the circumstances surrounding the murder of the Duke of Gloucester, the buried subtext of Henry Bolingbroke’s challenge of Thomas Mowbray (nb: they are pronounced BOWLING [or BULLING]-BROOK and MOH-BREE). Next, write a response in which you meditate on the nature of political theater in Act 1, and the interplay of silence and speech in the first two scenes. How would you judge the success or failure of Richard’s negotiation of the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray? How does the political theater of the trial by arms and its sudden cancellation both reveal and hide the various motivations of the actor’s? What are the strengths and limitations of political theater, political speech, and sovereign authority as they are dramatized in this act?

Please note that I don’t expect you to answer all of these questions in a single page; they are meant to prompt your thinking. However, I should remind you that successful responses will not concentrate on broad issues of plot or historical contextualization that can be found online (in fact, I would recommend avoiding google searches for this topic). Rather a successful response will dig deeply into the language of the text, concentrating on what is said–and what is left unsaid or what is even unsayable.

Due on Tuesday, by class-time. 

Assignment 1: Using Sources

Ovid was perhaps the most important influence on Shakespeare’s thought and verse. Your assignment for this week is to read the story of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, as translated in the sixteenth century by Arthur Golding (the translation of Ovid with which Shakespeare–and a generation of Elizabethan writers–were most intimately familiar). Then, in about one, single-spaced page, write about the ways Shakespeare’s uses, abuses, manipulates, and honors his source material. I encourage you to be creative with this assignment–its purpose is to help you learn how to use sources to conduct a literary analysis, not to prove that Shakespeare read Ovid. Don’t, then, simply review similarities between the plots of MND and of Ovid’s story. Rather, choose some specific passage or passages of MND and think about how it wrestles with the language, themes, and spirit of The Metamorphosis. Where does Ovid hover on the edges of the story, even when Pyramus and Thisbe are not directly mentioned? How does reading Ovid alongside MND open up new dimensions of the play?

Due: Tuesday, Sep. 27, by class-time.

(Please see the 
Resources page in the main menu for more).

Timeline of Events Pertaining to English Theatrical History

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