How to Read and Understand Shakespeare
Marc C. Conner is the President of Skidmore College. He earned degrees in English and Philosophy at the University of Washington (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude), followed by master’s and doctorate degrees in English at Princeton University. He was previously the Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University and served as provost and chief academic officer from 2016 to 2020. He also taught at Princeton University and the University of Notre Dame.
Professor Conner is a specialist in modern literature, particularly Irish and American literature. He is a regular presenter at the major Irish studies gatherings, including the Lady Gregory–Yeats Autumn Gathering in Galway, the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, and the Trieste Joyce School. He serves as secretary/treasurer of the Ralph Ellison Society and presents regularly at the American Literature Association annual conference. At Washington and Lee University, he created a study abroad program in Ireland, and he has led adult education programs to Ireland and other Celtic lands. He also received the university’s Outstanding Teacher Award and the Anece F. McCloud Excellence in Diversity Award.
Professor Conner’s books include The Poetry of James Joyce Reconsidered; The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty-First Century; The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison; Screening Modern Irish Drama and Fiction; Screening Contemporary Irish Drama and Fiction; and Global Ralph Ellison.
01: Approaching Shakespeare-The Scene Begins
Consider four points of entry for understanding what's happening in a Shakespeare play. Learn how to approach a single dramatic scene, focusing on Shakespeare's richly metaphorical use of language. Begin to grasp the playwright's use of stagecraft, and how his plays require your own active participation and powers of imagination.
02: Shakespeare's Theater and Stagecraft
Here, envision theatrical London as it existed in Shakespeare's time. First, consider Shakespeare's fundamental intent to "hold the mirror up to nature"-to imitate the living world. Then learn about the colorful milieu of Elizabethan theater; its conventions of physical space, scenery, and costumes; and how the playwright created theatrical "reality" through language.
03: A Midsummer Night's Dream-Comic Tools
In his comedic plays, Shakespeare drew on the classical Roman model of comedy. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, see how he expands the form, using the archetypal plot devices of "blocked love," its resolution at either the altar or the grave, and the escape from urban life to the magical world of the forest.
04: A Midsummer Night's Dream-Comic Structure
This lecture explores key principles for understanding and appreciating Shakespeare's comedies. Grasp the thematic elements of a shift from friendship to romantic love and of severe testing of the characters. See how the three-part structure of the comedies leads inevitably to reconciliation and regeneration.
05: Romeo and Juliet-Words, Words, Words
Shakespeare's primary tool as a playwright is words themselves as dramatic expressions of character and meaning. In Romeo and Juliet, see how Shakespeare ingeniously uses language to distinguish class and personality, and how he uses the poetic form of the sonnet in creating a sublime language of love.
06: Romeo and Juliet-The Tools of Tragedy
Continuing with Romeo and Juliet, observe how the famous balcony scene shifts the action and sense of the play toward a new kind of character-driven tragedy. In the play's unfolding, note the role of the tension between fate and free will, and the arc of development whereby Juliet becomes a great tragic figure.
07: Appearance versus Reality in Twelfth Night
As one of his outstanding "mature" comedies, Twelfth Night reveals themes and elements that are keys to all of Shakespeare's plays. Discover how the comedy revolves around crises of identity, the need to distinguish external appearance from internal reality, and a reversal of power roles
08: Twelfth Night-More Comic Tools
In Shakespeare's encompassing vision of Twelfth Night, observe how the young characters' movement toward self-knowledge and mutual love contrasts with plot elements of isolation and rejection. See how the remarkable heroine Viola, a figure of grace, acts as an agent of redemption for the entire world of the play.
09: Richard II-History and Kingship
In his history plays, Shakespeare addresses profound issues of politics, philosophy, and religion. In Richard II, engage with core thematic elements that drive the history plays: the question of the "divine right" of kingship, the larger meanings of historical events, and the conflict between brothers-an emblem for civil war
10: Politics as Theater in Henry IV, Part I
Here, the dynamic of appearance versus reality illuminates the making of a king. In the dual world of the Court and the Tavern, witness Shakespeare's use of theatrical role-playing to reveal Prince Hal and Falstaff to themselves, and grasp how Hal's journey to kingship takes on the nature of a calculated "performance."
11: Henry IV, Part 2-Contrast and Complexity
As an interpretive tool, define Part 2's stark differences with the preceding play, noting its shifting depictions of courage and honor, and its characters' reversals of fortune. Follow Prince Hal's dramatic metamorphosis as he assumes the throne, disavowing the dissolute life he lived and embracing the course of justice and order.
12: The Drama of Ideas in Henry V
In plumbing the riches of one of Shakespeare's greatest history plays, assess Henry's ambiguous relation to God as he manipulates faith and religion to his political ends. Grasp also how Henry employs the dynamics of theater, brilliantly "staging" each of his critical actions, and how he defeats the expectations of his French foes.
13: Macbeth-"Foul and Fair"
In Macbeth, Shakespeare reveals a world in which everything becomes its opposite. Study how reversals of reality and meaning dominate the play, seen vividly in the recurring dynamic of betrayal and the politically charged tension between appearance and reality. See how the playwright uses "comic relief" to ultimately heighten the horror you've witnessed
14: The Tragic Woman in Macbeth
Shakespeare's great tragic women are central to the functioning of his tragedies. Here, encounter the powerful figure of Lady Macbeth and observe how her arc of development as a character inversely mirrors her husband's. Grasp how Macbeth poignantly sounds the depths of meaninglessness as he confronts the abyss of his own making.
15: Staging Hamlet
Discover how Hamlet's opening scene reveals many of the crucial themes of the play. Then delve into the use of acting as a major dynamic of the story, as Hamlet ultimately takes action through the devices of theater, staging a play to determine the course of his own fate.
16: The Religious Drama of Hamlet
A deep look at the religious and theological issues at work in Hamlet unlocks the meanings in Shakespeare's most celebrated play. Study three important moments of religious contemplation within the play, and see how Hamlet's hesitance to avenge his father's murder is enmeshed with his foreboding sense of the afterlife.
17: The Women of Hamlet
Two crucial women illuminate the core themes and dynamics of Hamlet. Grasp how Gertrude, who speaks only in moderation, compellingly underlines the issues of loyalty and betrayal that drive the story, and how Ophelia, torn between irreconcilable male figures, becomes a sacrifice to the tragic forces of the play.
18: The Merchant of Venice-Comedy or Tragedy?
In this extraordinary play, Shakespeare explores the dark undercurrents of comedy to the fullest. Delve into the crisis of identity that each character faces, the theme of perilous risk, and the plot elements of loss and sacrifice that work against the play's comic structure.
19: The Arc of Character in The Merchant of Venice
Begin this lecture by tracing the historical background of Judaism in Elizabethan London, and how the portrayal of Shylock conforms to contemporary conventions of comic villains. Then see how Shakespeare breaks free of the stereotypes of his time, developing the character and the play as a penetrating meditation on justice and mercy.
20: Measure for Measure-Is This Comedy?
With Measure for Measure, you enter the world of Shakespeare's "problem plays"-dramas that seem neither truly comic nor tragic. Here, observe how Shakespeare creates Vienna, the play's setting, as a place of hypocrisy, deception, and trickery, where nothing is what it seems and all the tenets of comedy are subverted.
21: Measure for Measure-Overcoming Tragedy
This lecture uses the interpretive tools of both comedy and tragedy to mine the deeper meanings of Measure for Measure. Study how the playwright treats plot elements and character relationships that show the hallmarks of tragedy, finally overturning them in a surprising and transformative resolution of the story
22: Tools of Romance in The Tempest
At the end of his career, Shakespeare developed the form of drama known as his Late Romances. Here, learn how The Tempest exemplifies the three-part structure of the Romances, as the magical figure Prospero "stages" a series of trials for the shipwrecked characters, leading them through suffering to ultimate reconciliation.
23: The Tempest-Shakespeare's Farewell to Art
Begin this lecture by investigating the spiritual significance of The Tempest's island setting as a testing ground for humanity's nobler nature. Then grasp how Shakespeare seems to speak directly to us through the figure of Prospero, whose final renunciation of his magical art mirrors Shakespeare's own farewell to playwriting.
24: The Tools for a Lifetime of Shakespeare
The many interpretive tools you've studied leave you with the ability to engage meaningfully with any Shakespeare play. In concluding, look at three plays you have not yet studied in detail-Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It-and see how the tools allow you to directly appreciate their structures, devices, and deeper meanings.