Instructor: Daniel Traister

Office: Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Phone: 215 898 7088 / Fax: 215 573 9079

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E-mail to the Class List: TO COME

The class's "live" version of this syllabus requires registration and log-in for anyone wanting to access it.



These days, in addition to whatever else he may be, Shakespeare is also news.

Shakespeare in Love, Oscar-winner as "best picture" this past spring, is only one of many recent films to represent his plays or concern aspects of his life and times. Theaters in the United Kingdom and the United States -- and across most of the world, for that matter -- constantly produce his plays. Students all over the world read him. Perhaps surprisingly, some continue to read and see him after they've stopped being students, for (dare one say it?) "pleasure."

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare has become a chip in current battles about what "education" is all about and what students ought to be taught. When Georgetown University stopped requiring a Shakespeare course for its English majors, cultural critics decried the move as one more sign of the collapse of civilization. Even academic argument about Shakespeare has taken at least a baby step or two outside the academy and become of apparent interest to a broader range of the public than has recently seemed the norm.

Harold Bloom's recent (1998) book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, for example, has attracted considerable attention -- and debate. A. D. Nuttall finds the work "magnificent" and "breathtaking": Samuel "Johnson is invoked as presiding genius of . . . [Bloom's] book because he praised Shakespeare for the diversity of persons represented. The common reader calls this skill in characterization -- a term avoided by the literary intelligentsia but fearlessly reaffirmed by Bloom. I rejoice to concur" (Nuttall in Raritan, 18:3 [Winter 1999], 123-134). Terence Hawkes finds Bloom's book nearly beneath contempt: "the spirit of A C Bradley, dread author of Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) and now risen, clanking from the grave, . . . beckon[s] his princely successor on"; but "the dominant mode of art" inherited by Shakespeare's plays, a mode "to which they offered a complex response, was less representational than emblematic or symbolic. That's one reason why they were written in verse" (Hawkes in The New Statesman [12 March 1999], 45-46). This attention, these arguments in the press, and the popularity of Bloom's book (it even hit the New York Times bestseller list briefly, not the fate of the ordinary "academic" book), all accord with many other signs to indicate that interest in William Shakespeare continues high nearly four hundred years after his death.

What keeps him alive? and why the current fuss? -- or, if you prefer, the current interest? Is he a guide to "character"? Do his innards show in his plays, as if he were a romantic writer revealing to us his "invention" -- à la mode de Bloom -- of "the human"? Does he deal with the private inner worlds of people, presenting his characters as "emoters," or does he deal with their public and political roles, as "actors"? Do his plays "effuse," emerging from some profound inner turmoil, or do they reflect a craftsmanlike attention to dramatic construction, sometimes on principles we no longer share? Do they even, perhaps, provide evidence, now and again, of second thoughts, revisions? Are his plays all "great"?

No course can "answer" these questions. Perhaps none should even try. Yet raising them can be a provocative way of considering not only Shakespeare, usually worth a good long look in his own right, but also such additional issues as how we read "literature" and what we read it for. I hope that this class will provide an opportunity for discussion of both questions, and other related ones as they arise.

We will read three plays by Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, and King Lear. We will also read some of their sources and analogues, a few classic commentaries about them, and some later versions of the stories they tell. With respect to Hamlet and Lear, we will take advantage of a resource now available on the Web to look at the evidence for revision, for rethinking, for second thoughts, that some of Shakespeare's most highly-regarded plays preserve, and to think a bit about what such tinkering may suggest about the processes he used in creating the works that writers like Bloom, Nuttall, and Hawkes disagree so much about, although all of them nonetheless value them highly.


As you may have begun to notice already, I write syllabi that are very detailed -- over-detailed -- about the courses I teach. No one has to take this class who doesn't want to take it. If you do take it, however, you should know what you're in for.

This course by its nature will HEAVILY EMPHASIZE discussion. The purpose of the course is not grades but general, continuing education -- and, the instructor piously hopes, fun, too. I fear that "fun" may be the dirtiest word in the academy -- and am profoundly convinced that it shouldn't be. This course simply won't work if you don't come prepared to write comments and questions to the class, if you don't, that is, regard discussion, argument, and disagreement, as well as consensus, as forms of indoor sport.


This course will "meet" in virtual space on an electronic list to which all registered students will have access. I will monitor this list as constantly as possible, posing questions, responding to questions, responding to comments, and so forth. All mail addressed to the list will be seen by everyone in the class. You can, however, write to me off-line at, my e-mail address. I will not re-post your private messages to me to the entire list without your express consent. I can also be reached by phone at 215 898 7088 between 9 A.M. and 5 P.M. (eastern time zone, USA). My fax number there (at my Penn office) is 215 573 9079. My website is

This format -- an electronic list -- means that class communications can take place twenty-four hours a day: the list is always open. But all of you have work and lives; somewhat astonishingly, so do I. We should not expect instant responses either from me or from one another. This class is not a chat-room; it is a course. Time for reflection, consideration, and consultation of sources before firing back responses might prove to be of value. Ease of communication is one of the great virtues that this new technology affords us. Speed of communication is, contrastingly, not always a virtue; and, in this case, it might even seem worth deliberately trying to evade. Shakespeare is going nowhere; he's in no hurry. The list is up for a semester; it's in no hurry, either. And coming as we do from different time zones, some of us may be sleeping while others are having exciting thoughts. Patience while others are thinking, sleeping, or just living their lives is to be practiced.

However, our technical people tell me that we do have capabilities that will allow for occasional chat-room sessions. Depending on your schedules and interest, and my schedule, we can -- and therefore may well -- set up a few real-time chat sessions during the semester.

As the semester progresses, we may decide to "thread" our discussions -- organizing them, that is, by topic. FOR THE TIME BEING, however, I want our discussions to be general. Precise subject headings -- for example, "Hamlet's madness" -- will always be preferable to general ones -- for example, "Hamlet."

AN EARNEST PLEA: If vacations, family emergencies, holidays, or anything else must take you off-list for a while, please do let me know! As we get to know one another, even virtually, an absent voice will become as noticeable as a present one. People will worry about you!


  1. Many of you probably still have one-volume editions of Shakespeare's plays from your student days. From most points of view, these are likely to suffice. That said, I nonetheless strongly recommend that you acquire a modern edition, specifically:

    "Strongly recommends" does NOT mean "requires." That granted, I nonetheless strongly recommend The Norton Shakespeare because, unlike older one-volume editions, it ordinarily uses the most recent discoveries about the text of Shakespeare in printing its versions of the plays -- most notably, for our purposes, with respect to Lear. As you will see, this point matters to us, for Shakespeare's text is in a state of some flux as scholars increasingly come to understand the conditions under which it was originally created. Looking at variations between versions -- some of them enormous -- will be one of the things this class is about.

  2. The First Quarto of Hamlet, ed. Kathleen O. Irace (Cambridge University Press, 1998) -- paperback

  3. Christopher Marlowe, The Jew of Malta, ed. James Siemon, 2nd ed., New Mermaid Series (W. W. Norton, 1995) -- paperback
    Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus & Other Plays, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, World's Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) -- paperback


  1. E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (1944; reprinted as a Vintage paperback)
    C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (1964; reprinted as a Cambridge University Press paperback)

  2. Julia Briggs, This Stage-Play World: Texts and Contexts, 1580-1625, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1997) -- paperback

    NOTE: Briggs has gone out of stock at its publisher. If you can find a copy, it remains well worth reading. Assignments from it have, however, been omitted.

  3. Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) -- paperback; old and now standard
    Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) -- hardbound; new and untested

  4. See also Maggie Secara's Compendium of Common Knowledge 1558-1603: Elizabethan Commonplaces for Writers, Actors, and Re-enactors; and

  5. some of the other background information sources to be found on my history page


In addition, the resources of Penn's Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image (Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library) allow you access to several online versions of Shakespeare's (and related) texts. Some of these texts will be required reading. I will always specify when that is so.

A special password-protected site also allows you access to some out-of-print primary and secondary materials (both original texts and works of scholarship and criticism). I have put these online for the exclusive use of students in this class. Passwords will be distributed when class sessions begin.

The single best resource for readers of English-language works is the Oxford English Dictionary, available to Penn students through the Library's website, as well as in its various printed forms. It is also generally available as a multi-volume printed book, as a one-volume microprint printed book, as a CD-ROM, and electronically. Oxford University Press has a website with full details.



Week 1 -- Classes at Penn begin on Wednesday, September 8

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Discussion questions:

    The discussion questions that follow are intended to get us started speaking with one another generally about some of the issues we'll be considering specifically during the weeks ahead with plays in hand. You will find that such discussion questions positively litter this syllabus week after week. Remember: they are supposed to provide starting points, not end points. The class and I both will welcome questions about other matters that occur to you as you read the plays.

    Before you do anything else, however, one non-discussion -- non-"academic" -- question needs your reply:

  1. For the benefit of the rest of this class and of the instructor, tell all of us briefly who you are, when you were at Penn, what you do now, and where you do it ( . . . and, if so moved, why writing this reply has already made you feel that signing up for this course might not have been the brightest idea you've had since graduation!). You in your turn can find out much more about me than you want or need to know at my website.

Here are the "academic" discussion questions promised above:

  1. Greenblatt's introduction uses "fiction" as well as "history" to place Shakespeare in his historical context. Does this technique work? or does it bother you?

  2. What does it mean "to place Shakespeare in his historical context"? and why should we want -- or why might we not want -- to do so?

  3. From reading Greenblatt and Gurr, can you begin to specify significant ways in which the later Elizabethan and earlier Jacobean periods during which Shakespeare wrote differ from our own? How much real "difference" do such differences make -- or should those differences make -- in our approach to his plays?

  4. Can similar questions, and similar doubts, be raised with reference to the differences between Tudor and contemporary theatrical and staging practices?

  5. One specific question about stage practice: what might be the impact of having boys and men playing the roles of girls and women?

  6. "If there was a single issue that dominated the half-century from 1580," says Briggs (p. 136), "it was religion": and if there is a single issue that matters less to (most)(many)(all)(some)[choose one] of "us," it is religion. Does that changed perspective matter? -- even if Briggs is right about "the single issue," religion, that she suggests dominated English life during Shakespeare's period?

Week 2 -- September 13

Required reading:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. This is a notoriously difficult play for modern audiences, readers, and scholars to come to grips with. "If he had known that Hitler was to come he might well have avoided making one of his most frightening villains a Jew," Nuttall writes (p. 133; this is at the very least a somewhat bizarre defense of this play, surely?). Alan Sinfield, another contemporary Shakespeare scholar, simply dismisses Merchant as "horrible" (not a word one expects to see a Shakespearian using about one of the plays in the canon; but Sinfield does so in Cultural Politics -- Queer Reading, a book published in Philadelphia by some fly-by-night crowd calling itself the University of Pennsylvania Press [1994], p. 1). So let's start by asking the obvious question: is Merchant an antisemitic play?

  2. And (less obviously?), if it is, so what?

  3. Relatedly, is it a "horrible" play? -- and, if so, how?

  4. And once again, if it is horrible, so what?

  5. What happens to Jessica as the play ends? Is she part of the concluding action, or is she separate from it? How can you tell? And why might it matter?

  6. What is Antonio's love interest in the play? Does his love interest relate in any meaningful way to the conflicting thematic clusters of "Jews/usury/breeding money" vs. "Christians/gifts/money does not breed" that also bear on the question of the play's antisemitism?

Week 3 -- September 20

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Discussion questions:

  1. Marlowe's is undeniably a powerful play, yet it has held the stage far less successfully than The Merchant. What qualities does it have that Shakespeare lacks? What qualities does it lack that Shakespeare's play has?

  2. Does reading Marlowe change your view of the "antisemitism" of Shakespeare's play? This is not quite a simple question: it might suggest, for example, that you think about how pervasive antisemitism was in the culture out of which both Marlowe and Shakespeare emerged; it might, instead, suggest that Marlowe's Jew is far more one-dimensional a villain than Shakespeare's, and hence a more loathesome portrait; and it might head you off in different directions altogether.

Week 4 -- September 27

Recommended reading:

Discussion questions:

  1. Gurney, Leiren-Young, and Wesker all try in differing ways to come to grips with various questions that The Merchant of Venice -- whether inadvertently or not -- raises. Why is Shakespeare's play so fruitful a hunting ground for later dramatists?

  2. Why is it so provocative a source for discussion among its readers and audiences, both popular and scholarly?

  3. Is its discussion not only provocative but also fruitful?

  4. Does discussion of Merchant reflect its merits as a play, as "a work of literature"? or has discussion of this play been warped by a twentieth-century history (the Holocaust) about which Shakespeare could have known nothing?

Weeks 5-8: Hamlet

Week 5 -- October 4

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. When I was a student in my first Shakespeare class, Mack's beautifully-written essay on "The World of Hamlet" was the cat's meow -- the last word on Hamlet. It's now almost fifty years old. Does it still work as a way of (or as a help to) understanding the play? How? Perhaps just as important, in what ways does it not work?

  2. Shakespeare's play Hamlet has come to have almost a talismanic value. Our culture tends to a view of literature that conventionally sets Shakespeare at its apex, alongside Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, and -- just maybe -- Joyce. Hamlet occupies a similar sort of position at the apex of the works of Shakespeare himself. There is this difference: as a writer, Shakespeare may have four (or five?) "peers," but as a play Hamlet -- possibly excepting King Lear? -- seems to have none. Why? What makes this play "special"?

  3. The character of its central character is usually cited as one explanation of the play's astonishing appeal. His inability to act -- to get on with it, to revenge his father's foul and unnatural murder, as his father's ghost has explained it to him -- seems to be the problem for which we look to a key in his "character." Do you see this propensity for delay as a character problem? Why? or why not? What else might it be?

Week 6 -- October 11

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. "He can't be serious! Why did he make us read this hunk of junk?" -- Why indeed? Is it even a play, let alone "Hamlet"? Does it work at all? Or is it just a piece of accidentally-surviving badness which, had the cards been dealt a different way, no one would ever have missed?

    Let me be as blunt as possible. The basic question here is: should anyone have wasted your time (and, presumably, his own) by asking you -- us! -- to read, think about, and discuss this . . . this . . . this thing?

  2. "To be or not to be": here is an obvious place for comparisons between the idiosyncratic First Quarto and familiar Second Quarto/First Folio versions on a most specific, and therefore manageable, body of words. Not with respect to the entire shmear, the gestalt, as in the question immediately above, but instead with respect only to this one speech, what can you say about the merits -- if any -- of this First Quarto?

  3. Hamlet "puts on" an "antic disposition" consciously, deliberately, calculatingly. So is he "mad"?

  4. We all "know" that Hamlet has a little Oedipal problem with Gertrude; in case we didn't know it, Olivier's filmed version of the play surely makes it clear. Is our "knowledge" "real knowledge" -- is it "true"?

Week 7 -- October 18

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. Is Hamlet the tragic tale of a dysfunctional man? a dysfunctional family? or a dysfunctional society? How might these three different possibilities be related to one another? and are they related to one another? Why (in short) does Hamlet matter?

  2. Here is an example from Professor Steven Urkowitz of how to think about the impact of multiple texts with respect to Hamlet:
    Ophelia's complicity seems to be one of the issues that tickled the revisers moving from Q1 to Q2 HAMLET.

    There's a key moment, variant in the Q1 and Q2 texts that bears on Ophelia's participation in her father's plotting. Immediately after the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, in Q1 Ophelia speaks to Hamlet with great respect, haltingly offering to return his gifts and letters. Hamlet reacts angrily with harsh, derogatory questions, prompting Ophelia to respond in kind. She begins amiably, deferentially. In contrast, the Q2 text has her begin far more forcefully, while Hamlet initially is deferential. Both texts move toward the same kinds of mutual incomprehension and rage. But in Q1, at least as I read its dialogue, Ophelia gets swept into her father's scheme. In Q2 she actively participates in its craft. A simple line count at the opening section of this exchange shows Ophelia dominating the moment, something like eleven lines to three for Hamlet compared to a roughly equal number of lines for each in Q1. I have a recent essay from the SAA [Shakespeare Association of America] 1999 Seminar on HAMLET stage directions and stage action looking at the patterns of action at this part of the play.

    Variants in Ophelia's role through the play complicate her relationships with Hamlet, Polonius, Laertes, Gertrude and even the King. Some of this is covered in my "Five Women Eleven Ways," in [Werner] Habicht, et al., CHANGING IMAGES OF SHAKESPEARE (1988), and in "Well-sayd old mole," in Zeigler, ed., SHAKESPEARE STUDY TODAY (1986) [full reference above].

    We don't get any easy view inside her head, but what we do see in externally visible action grows more delicately troubling as the play moves through revisions.

    SHAKSPER, 12 May 1999
Does this example help to convince you that revision ("re-vision," re-thinking, re-conceiving or re-conceptualizing) is what is going on here? That is, that we don't simply have to do with a "bad" First Quarto and uninstructive differences between the Second Quarto and First Folio "versions" of this play (which aren't really "versions," therefore, at all)? Can you find any instances where anything similar seems to be going on that significantly changes the ways the authors/revisers read (or understood) the action between Q1, Q2, and F1?

Week 8 -- October 25

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Recommended listening:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. One doesn't normally think of Merchant and Hamlet together; yet the tragedy, like the comedy, seems also to have been a fruitful hunting ground for later dramatists. Why?

  2. Those later playwrights whom we saw "playing" with Merchant turned it variously into laughable comedy or into serious meditation; the tragedy of Hamlet too turns out to be, perhaps surprisingly, amenable to similarly diverse generic treatment (in fact, at the hands of the same playwright, Tom Stappard). How come?

  3. Why did you choose to re-read, for this last week on Hamlet, the particular version you chose?

Weeks 9-13: King Lear

Week 9 -- November 1

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. You've just read the quarto version, not a conflated text of King Lear (a version, that is, that draws together materials from both the quarto and folio versions of the play). Since almost all of you have "had" Lear at one time or another, whether in high school or in college, the play is not unfamiliar, even if its details were not at your fingertips before this renewed encounter with it. Can you sense that it is (or is not) different in any way(s) from the Lear you remember? If so, how?

  2. About Hamlet, one question concerned whether the play is about the person, his family, or the state. The same question can be asked about Lear -- and should be.

Week 10 -- November 8

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. You've just read the folio version, not a conflated text of King Lear. Since almost all of you have "had" Lear at one time or another, whether in high school or in college, the play is not unfamiliar, even if its details were not at your fingertips before last week's and this week's renewed encounters with it. Can you sense that it is (or is not) different in any way(s) from the Lear you remember? and from the quarto Lear of last week? If so, how?

  2. In his madness, Lear comes to dreadful realizations about the nature and organization of human society. Does Shakespeare want his audience to be as critical of society as Lear becomes? Is Lear a "radical" play in its social critique? What difference does Lear's madness make to the ways in which audiences think about the play's critique?

Week 11 -- November 15

Required reading:

Recommended reading:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. This version of Lear is the now traditional, old, familiar conflated version. Do you find it (better than)(worse than)(no different from) the quarto or folio Lears you have also read?

  2. Reading three different versions of such a text as this one -- like reading several versions of Hamlet -- may, no matter how "great" the work, seem a little bit like an intellectualized version of water torture. The point of the exercise, of course, is to suggest the problem of craft. "We" in this century tend to read Shakespeare backwards through the haze (if it is a haze) of romantic theories of inspired authorship. Differing versions of texts such as these, however, present us with an alternative possibility: a writer working, not under the influence of some grandly romantic cosmic passion, but rather at a form whose successful rendering poses him certain formal problems that, at different times, he solves in different ways.

    Is this a satisfactory alternative way of thinking about the meaning of these variant Lears (and the variant Hamlets that preceded them)? If yes or no, why?

  3. Is it a useful way of thinking about the nature of Shakespeare the author? For instance, does it change the way(s) in which one might respond to questions arising from Bloom's assertions concerning Shakespeare as creator of characters, the individual, the "human," vs. Hawkes's assertions about the emblematic and symbolic nature of his plays, written as they were in verse?

  4. Mack's short study of Lear predates any concern for the differing texts; it is based unselfconsciously on his reading of a conflated Lear. Whether you liked or disliked his approach to the play, does the current "out-datedness" of his scholarship affect your reading of him?

  5. More specifically: Regan and Goneril don't seem sprung from the same womb as Cordelia; neither do Edgar and Edmund (and, of course, they are not products of the same womb, though they share the same father). Clearly one issue central to both of the play's major plots -- Lear's; Gloucester's -- is the relationship of parents and children. What do we make of the "bad" children in Lear? and of the "good" ones?

  6. If one thinks also of how unusual in this play both Kent and his dutiful service to Lear seem, then we may think that questions of service, loyalty, and duty in the state conceived as a family are also issues. Does consideration of these matters help you to "sum up" the play?

Week 12 -- November 22 -- Thanksgiving Week -- NO CLASS

Week 13 -- November 29

Required reading:

Recommended viewing:

Discussion questions:

  1. Tate? Nahum Tate? How did this guy sneak in here? and what did people think they were seeing?

    And oh, yes: you are kidding about "held the stage for more than a century," aren't you?

  2. Samuel Johnson, rather later in the "neoclassical" period of which Tate was an early flower, found Lear nearly unbearable. He meant this not as a literary judgment: he had no doubts that Lear was one of the greatest moments in English literature. But personally he found the play so difficult to read, let alone to watch, that he could almost not bring himself to do so. "We" find this response extreme.

    Don't we?

Final week -- CONCLUSION

Week 14 -- December 6

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