at Herstmonceux Castle, U.K.

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ENGL 258/3.0 - Jacobean Shakespeare

Instructor: Dr. Peter Lowe

On this course we will use Shakespeare’s later plays to explore the social, intellectual, and political nature of the Jacobean world in which he lived and wrote.  At home, this was a time that saw Britain’s Tudor age replaced by the Stuart Dynasty, with James I being invited to come from Scotland and assume the English throne.  Religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants continued to run high, culminating in the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of 1605, a concerted attempt to murder the King and ruling class of the country at the opening of Parliament.  Abroad, Britain’s colonisation of the Americas brought the country great wealth but also raised troubling questions about national responsibility and morality.

All of these factors informed Shakespeare’s work, and in our study of six plays from this period we will see how he responded to his time as a dramatist of unequalled craft and vision.  This was the age of the great tragedies, of Macbeth and King Lear – works that challenged and redefined concepts of humanity in drama. Coriolanus saw Shakespeare return to Roman history for his material but also resonate with the concerns of his own time.  In Henry VIII he addressed the period in which much of the tensions of his own lifetime had originated and Measure for Measure raises unsettling questions as to the nature of ‘good’ government. The Jacobean years end with the artistic flourish of The Tempest, in which Shakespeare summed up, via the story of Prospero’s island, his own concerns about art and reality and the wider political and social forces that had defined his age.

Our study of the plays will be complemented by field trips to gain an appreciation of the Jacobean world, including a visit to the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.  Wherever possible, the will be opportunities to see the plays in performance.

The plays will be studied with a focus on ‘close reading’ skills that will enhance your enjoyment of a text and give you the tools to analyse and critique the works you read in future, whether for academic study or your own pleasure.  By reading carefully, thinking at length about the formal properties and content of the texts, and learning how to draft and edit written work students will acquire skills that are held in high regard not just in academic circles but in the workplace as well.