ENGLISH 256.301

Confronting Deity: Religious Dramas

Fall semester 2008
Mondays and Wednesdays, 2-3:30 P.M.
Fisher Bennett 16

INSTRUCTOR: Daniel Traister
Email: traister@pobox.upenn.edu
Phone: 215 898 7088
Office: 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Office hours: call or email in advance


"While we look up to heaven, we confound / Knowledge with knowledge. Oh, I am in a mist!" So says a character in one of the great tragedies of Shakespeare’s period. The problem he articulates has agitated dramatists, and many other writers, from the very beginnings of western literature. The relationships between god, or the gods, and the people whose lives they seem to control have been testy -- and they have been tested -- again and again. This class looks at several Biblical, classical, more recent investigations of these relationships. Some of these works are serious. A few are comic. A very few are hard to pigeonhole.

The texts we read are primarily plays but also include works in a few other forms. They range in period from the Bible and ancient Greece through the early modern period up to a book published this year. All may be read in English and all consider the various ways in which human beings have confronted their gods, or their gods confronted human beings, over time.


A note about texts:

Texts are available at the Pennsylvania Book Center (130 South 34th Street, at Sansom Street). The instructor may believe in supporting local independent bookstores but I also know that you can find many of these books (on the web, new or used) for less. You may well wish to seek them out that way. But if you do so, please note that while, for most of these texts, the specific edition you use may strike you as a matter of indifference, it isn't always a matter of indifference to me. (1) I have tried to choose texts or translations that are reliable and readable, with introductions and notes (if any) that are useful. Not all editions are created equal. (2) On a practical level, the use of different texts will make it difficult for the class to be on the same page (literally!) during discussion.


  1. Jean Anouilh, Becket (New York: Riverhead, 1995) -- ISBN-10: 1573225088 / ISBN-13: 978-1573225083
  2. Jean Anouilh, Five Plays, Vol. 1: Antigone, Eurydice, The Ermine, The Rehearsal, Romeo and Jeannette (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990) -- ISBN-10: 0374522294 / ISBN-13: 978-0374522292
  3. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1994) -- ISBN-10: 0802130348 / ISBN-13: 978-0802130341
  4. Lee Breuer, The Gospel at Colonus (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993) -- ISBN-10: 0930452941 / ISBN-13: 978-0930452940
  5. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage International, 1991) -- ISBN-10: 0679720219; ISBN-13: 978-0679720218)
  6. John Donne, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, ed. Charles M. Coffin (New York: Modern Library, 2001) -- ISBN-10: 0375757341 / ISBN-13: 978-0375757341
  7. T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral (New York: Harvest Books, 1964) -- ISN-10: 0156632772 / ISBN-13: 978-0156632775
  8. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Charles Martin (New York: Norton, 2005) -- ISBN-10: 039332642X / ISBN-13: 978-0393326420
  9. Archibald MacLeish, J.B. (Boston: Mariner Books, 1989) -- ISBN-10: 0395083532 / ISBN-13: 978-0395083536
  10. William Shakespeare, King Lear, ed. Stephen Orgel (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000) -- ISBN-10: 0140714901 / ISBN-13: 978-0140714906
  11. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999) -- ISBN-10: 0312166214 / ISBN-13: 978-0312166212)
  12. Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 2000) -- ISBN-10: 0140444254 / ISBN-13: 978-0140444254
  13. Salley Vickers, Where Three Roads Meet: The Myth of Oedipus (New York: Canongate, 2008) -- ISBN-10: 1847670180 / ISBN-13: 978-1847670182


  14. Catherine Belsey, Why Shakespeare? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) -- ISBN-10: 1403993203 / ISBN-13: 978-1403993205

NOTE: Assigned readings that are not found in the texts listed above will be distributed either via Blackboard or by photocopies handed out in class.


NOTE: WHETHER THE CLASS OPTS FOR A FINAL EXAM OR A FINAL PAPER, READ: Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (a novel, not a play). A paper or an exam will concern this book in significant part. Copies are available in the Library at PQ2605.A3734 A23 2004, PQ2605.A3734 P413 2001 (in a translation by Robin Buss), PQ2605.A3734 P413 1991, and PQ2605.A3734 P413.


Requirements include doing the reading (see weekly assignments above), participation in class, and two short papers (each about 1500 words) during the term. One long paper (approximately 2500 words) or a final exam will be due at the semester's end.

This final paper is in place of a final exam -- although the option of a final examination is open if the class as a whole chooses to have one instead of a final paper. "The class as a whole" means everyone will either do the paper or the exam; in the name of fairness and equity, I will not allow some to choose one and others to choose the other option.

"Recommendations" in the syllabus and list of texts are recommendations only. You do not have to read them. They are not covert assignments. You will not be held responsible for them in any way. I will occasionally distribute relevant (or, perhaps, merely interesting -- to me, anyway) articles or other pieces that deal with assigned readings or issues raised in class; these, too, you may read -- or ignore -- at will.


The success of this course depends entirely on your willingness to be engaged by the material and by each other. You need to keep up with the reading and to read carefully, but you also need to be adventurous about the interpretations that you offer -- perhaps even "adventurous" enough to offer them in public audibly and without embarrassment. Take risks, draw connections, ask questions, and do not despair in the face of complexity. Above all, talk to one another during our class meetings (or outside class, too). The instructor hopes to facilitate discussion and suggest some broader historical and cultural contexts for the material that we are reading, but the direction and momentum of our conversations is for you to determine. If you do not speak, I will fill the gap of silence. Neither you nor I will be pleased if I have to do that.

I regard class participation as a very serious matter. It will count for roughly one-fifth of your final grade. That is to say, you will receive a letter grade for the contributions that you make to our discussions. That letter grade will be a major component of your grade for the class.

Blackboard may also provide a venue for comments and reflections on both readings and classroom discussions.

You must arrive promptly for each class. I will not appreciate unexcused absences, either. Habitual lateness and/or more than one unexcused absence during the semester will result in the deduction of one-third of a letter grade from your final grade. Two or more unexcused absences before the end of the drop period will cause you to be dropped from the class. Five unexcused absences during the semester will result in a failing grade for the course.


The rules for cell phones, palm pilots, and other electronic devices, including games, are simple: turn them off; keep them off. Because this is intended to be a discussion class, your note taking needs are likely to be minimal. They can therefore be filled the old-fashioned way (pen or pencil and paper): don't deploy laptops, either. Bringing and eating food in class would also be both a bad idea and -- since you're going to be talking -- an impolite one. And try hard to let other finish speaking before interrupting them.

Such elementary matters of decorum -- good manners and taste -- are at least potentially minor issues in a class that deals with religious issues, however literary its context. But this is a class in literature, not a class in religion. It is certainly not a class in "comparative religion" (as in, say, "my religion is better than this or that writer's religion"). All of the writers we read, whatever their backgrounds or attitudes, investigate matters central to a great many religions. But to discuss them in terms of their adherence to or divergences from a particular religious or sectarian point of view would be very far from the point of this class.


The formal work for the seminar consists of written assignments: two short papers (1500 words) on topics to be assigned (you'll be able to choose among several each time) and a longer paper (2500 words) on a topic or a final exam on several topics that will require attention not only to the readings of the semester but also to Camus' The Plague.

All written assignments must be submitted at the beginning of class on the relevant due date (or by noon if due on a day class does not meet). No extensions will be granted without an appropriate excuse from the College Office or Student Health Center. Unexcused late work will receive a failing grade.

In general, the instructor appreciates good writing. He will look with disfavor upon essays that are poorly written. Sloppy writing normally means sloppy thinking.

Informal work will consist, for instance, of queries and responses posted on Blackboard. I assume that I make mistakes at a keyboard and therefore that you may, too. I don't think that informal online discussion asks to be graded in the same way as a formal written paper -- and I won't grade it in the same way.



It is your responsibility to be familiar with the relevant sections of the University's Code of Academic Integrity. Inevitably, your work will be collaborative in the sense that it will draw on and respond to the work of scholars and students. But it must also be original in the sense that its central ideas, questions, or ways of considering problems are your own. Acknowledge your intellectual debts. Any student who commits academic dishonesty will be referred to appropriate disciplinary/judicial organs and be liable to receive a failing grade for the course.


Your final grade will be determined according to the following proportions:

You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at traister@pobox.upenn.edu.

Return to Daniel Traister's Home Page.