William Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies

Explore 15 of Shakespeare's greatest plays and discover why the Bard of Avon is considered to be the greatest English language writer ever.
William Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 89.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Personal Plot Twist In the 1960s, while an undergraduate Biology major, I registered for a ten-week elective course on Shakespeare’s plays because I’d seen or read approximately a third of them and loved them. I nearly swallowed my gum when the professor announced that the reading list would be all of the plays, and I gulped again when I sat the final exam and saw that the only question was: “What was Shakespeare’s world view?” I was used to getting information through a microscope, expecting something empirical to report. It was also shocking to be confronted with a question that seemed most appropriate for a PhD candidate. I succumbed to writer’s block. Now, more than a half-century later, inspired by Professor Peter Saccio’s excellent course, I would dare to tackle that Shakespeare exam question, and I would not be merely parroting Dr. Saccio’s own theories. Rather, I’d be using his approach to draw my own conclusions. He has helped me to realize that an in-depth perception of Shakespeare is more like a view through a kaleidoscope than through a microscope. As the present course focusses on fifteen plays, I’ll need to re-study the rest of Shakespeare’s body of work before I can complete my long-overdue essay test. What pleases me greatly is that I am no longer intimidated. I feel that Dr. Saccio’s analyses have led me to some helpful understandings: *More is to be learned from pondering the questions that occupy Shakespeare’s characters than from any obvious didacticism by the playwright. I had an “aha moment” while listening to Dr. Saccio and realizing that Shakespeare may very well have intended to teach à la Socrates. *The historical context of Elizabethan times is key to distinguishing what in Shakespeare’s plays may convey “sub-surface” satire, political correctness, deference to religious attitudes, etc. *Considering the source materials from which plot ideas were adapted is also important (especially if I get interested in that PhD) for clarity about what Shakespeare changed and/or intentionally left out—these are clues to how he may have held personal views different from traditional ones of his era. *Checking the former meanings of words can prevent a student from serious misunderstandings; for example, as Dr. Saccio pointed out in Lecture #33 on King Lear, the word “luxury” meant “lechery” in Shakespeare’s day. *The Elizabethan stage did not have full sets. As Dr. Saccio explained, audiences were so accustomed to using their imaginations to envision what actors referred to, or apparently saw offstage, that they were quite comfortable with scenes that demanded such mental accommodation. A sensitive reader of Shakespeare’s scripts needs to take into account that they were not written for presentation with the lavish visual effects and cues seen in modern stage productions and movies. *It is helpful to appreciate Shakespeare as an impressionist, and even surrealist, writer, not as a realist. I already knew this sort of shift in perception helps me to get more out of different genres of visual arts; but, for some reason, I’d never thought about Shakespeare in such a way until Dr. Saccio pointed out all that that could reveal. *Because Dr. Saccio acted out many textual examples dramatically, I got much more out of them than I would have from blander quotation or from my own silent reading—another “aha moment”—this material is best understood in performance. Thank you very much, Dr. Saccio, for your Great Course, which I highly recommend.
Date published: 2021-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and Informative I am partway through the course and find that every moment has been a fascinating learning experience. The professor has been able to pull out the most important and interesting elements of Shakespeare's life and work so I find it to be the perfect overview. Also, there is not a single dry or boring moment. I am so happy that I found this course.
Date published: 2021-04-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Revision omits some of the more powerful tangents. There have been several versions of this course; this is the third iteration for me. If you are looking for a introduction to the language and power of Shakespeare, this is a good place to start, but it does omit some of the unscripted incidents where Dr. Saccio gets carried away in the material from the first version of the course. I purchased the first version of this course as my first TC course, and was overwhelmed by the lectures on Shylock and Henry V. The lecture on deconstruction and reconstruction of the nature of majesty in Henry V is the high point of the series, IMHO. Definitely worth the time just for that one aside.
Date published: 2021-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from EXCELLENT REVIEW OF SHAKESPEARE PLAYS I originally watched these on DVDs purchased from the magazine but I recently re-watched them on this platform. These are truly marvelous summaries of Shakespeare Plays. The depth and excitement of the professor really helps you get into the writing of the times. Even if you only know one of two plays I believe anyone with a little interest in British literature will find this a must watch
Date published: 2020-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Rich and Insightful The only caveat I would have for someone considering purchasing this course is that if you know little about Shakespeare's plays -- their themes and content -- this will NOT serve as the introductory course you likely desire. However, even if your knowledge of Shakespeare's works is only partial, I think there is much in this interesting course that you would likely find valuable. The professor's intent is to demonstrate the incredible richness of Shakespeare's understanding of human nature and of the wide range of human experience. Often in listening to a specific lecture, I had the mental image of Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick -- remembering, perhaps wondering how well he had known the man, after all. For this is what Professor Saccio does: he repeatedly holds before us one of the characters in the plays and helps us see -- through Shakespeare's words and imaginative stagecraft -- the individual in more of a 380 degree perspective. Throughout, he helps us better understand how these plays would have been understood and received in Shakespeare's day, as well as how various leading actors have interpreted the major characters in them sine then. He also helpfully gives us sidebars about the political, social, and religious aspects of the late 1500s and early 1600s that give deeper meaning to some references or words that are less familiar to us in our own time. I also appreciated the fact that Saccio has been not just a professor Shakespeare, but also an actor who has played several of the male roles in various of his plays, for it allows him to demonstrate "how" an actor interprets the role can significantly influence our reaction to the character as well as to the fate of that person in the play. The English language has changed some over the intervening centuries, but the hopes and follies of human beings have not. The settings may be placed in the distant past, but the choices, impulses, and errors of human beings have not changed at all. Shakespeare still has something to say to us, and this course brings home his astounding breadth.
Date published: 2020-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course!! Learning a lot about Shakespeare plays. Very good lecturer.
Date published: 2020-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Stratford on Avon-to-be alone Professor Saccio is a fantastic presenter and really knows his Shakespeare. He makes you enthusiastic about and eager to read the plays again.
Date published: 2020-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Hath not a Jew Eyes? Professor Saccio’s approach in this set of lectures allows him to devote an entire lecture to Shylock, something that I would only expect in a reasonably serious examination of Shakespeare’s plays. His course consists of 36 lectures and after the first two introductory ones; each subsequent 2-lecture set examines two aspects of that play. It may be as in the case as in the “Merchant of Venice” how Brassino courts and wins Portia in one lecture and an examination of Shylock in the other'; or in "Henry IV" one lecture mostly on Falstaff. This is an approach that I found particularly helpful in gaining a clearer and more specific understanding of the plays, but it is not at all suited for those who are not familiar with Shakespeare. Not that one needs much formal training. Other than high school “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth” I have had none. But by reading some of the plays and attending others, that should provide anyone with enough background to gain quite a bit from even the lectures on plays not seen or read. Then again I gained less from the lectures on “Measure for Measure” and “Troilus and Cressida” as I had neither seen nor read them, than I did from the ones with which I was familiar. No plot summaries (except for “Measure for Measure”, so if this is your expectation do some pre-reading. In the last 12 lectures Dr. Saccio moves from the 2-lecture set to a 3-lecture format as he looks at what are generally considered to be the “great” tragedies: “Hamlet”, “Othello”, “King Lear” and “Macbeth”. Using this format he is able to use one 30 minute segment to analyze one soliloquy in Macbeth: “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well/It were done quickly:”. Even in the very first line and a half, Professor Soccio presents a possible interpretation that had never occurred to me. This is my second course on Shakespeare; the other was Professor Kinney’s course on tragedies. Both professors read play excerpts and read them in a stylistic presentation. Many reviewers have disliked both professors’ interpretations, but for me, they are reading poetry. Surely one should not expect a flat reading of iambic pentameter. Of course is it fair enough to dislike a specific rendering. For me Professor Soccio hit the mark way more often than he failed. This is also my second course by Dr. Saccio, the other being “Modern British Drama”. That course was only 8 lectures long and I criticized the length in my review. Even though this course is way longer, I’d have liked a few more lectures. After all, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was excluded. And perhaps one of your favorites as well. Highly recommended, but you need some background. And a very minor complaint about TTC puritanical automatic editor: I could not include the quote "If you .... us do we not bleed?" as I flagged for profanity. Really?
Date published: 2019-03-13
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Overview

Professor Peter Saccio-an award-winning Ivy League Professor of Shakespeare studies-is your guide for this marvelous exploration of 15 of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Learn how our most abundant poet and dramatist has been moving, delighting, and enlightening readers and audiences for 400 years, with no end in sight.

About

Peter Saccio
Peter Saccio

Shakespeare found brilliant ways to make the complex inner self speak.

INSTITUTION

Dartmouth College

Dr. Peter Saccio is Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies and Professor of English Emeritus at Dartmouth College. He also served as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University and at University College in London. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

At Dartmouth, Professor Saccio was honored with the J. Kenneth Huntington Memorial Award for Outstanding Teaching.

Professor Saccio is the author of Shakespeare's English Kings, which has become a classic in its field. He is also the editor of Thomas Middleton's comedy A Mad World, My Masters, for the Oxford Complete Works of Thomas Middleton.

Professor Saccio is also an accomplished actor and theatrical director. He directed productions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Cymbeline, and devised and directed several programs of scenes from Shakespeare and from modern British drama. His acting credits include the Shakespearean roles of Casca, Angelo, Bassanio, and Henry IV, as well as various parts in the ancient and modern plays.

By This Professor

Shakespeare Then and Now

01: Shakespeare Then and Now

Shakespeare's plays moved audiences in his own time, and have proved enormously stimulating and useful to subsequent generations. Many have found Shakespeare valuable for a wide array of purposes over the years, reinterpreting him variously, even to the point of denying his authorship of the plays that bear his name.

35 min
The Nature of Shakespeare's Plays

02: The Nature of Shakespeare's Plays

Shakespeare was not a solitary genius, but a consummate theatre professional. In more ways than one, his plays are remarkable for their sheer "abundance." They boast a wealth of structural elements, and draw on many sources. They set unforgettable characters in motion against broad social and metaphysical backgrounds. And they mingle the fanciful with the realistic, and the comic with th...

28 min
Twelfth Night-Shakespearean Comedy

03: Twelfth Night-Shakespearean Comedy

For Shakespeare, romantic love is both foolish and wonderful. It often makes us look and act silly. Yet at its best, it moves us to reject self-absorption and share our God-given gifts in a spirit of generosity. How does Shakespeare use-and, at times contest-the conversions of romantic comedy as he pursues this vision?

31 min
Twelfth Night-Malvolio in Love

04: Twelfth Night-Malvolio in Love

The steward Malvolio (whose name alone says much) stands outside the play's two main sets of characters. And there he remains at the conclusion, as Shakespeare refuses to fold him into the larger happy ending. Faults and all, he is the "odd man out" who makes Twelfth Night a comedy with a definite bite....

30 min
The Taming of the Shrew-Getting Married in the 1590s

05: The Taming of the Shrew-Getting Married in the 1590s

Does The Taming of the Shrew advocate male supremacy in marriage? Is its portrayal of late 16th-century courtship customs a realistic one? What do modern productions (and modern playgoers) make of the play's most overt doctrinal statement about marriage, Kate's wedding-reception address?...

30 min
The Taming of the Shrew-Farce and Romance

06: The Taming of the Shrew-Farce and Romance

In this early comedy, Shakespeare adventurously combines romance with farce. Some critics look askance at this, but Shakespeare's use of "game" may be at once more "earnest" and more playful than they suspect.

30 min
The Merchant of Venice-Courting the Heiress

07: The Merchant of Venice-Courting the Heiress

The Merchant of Venice is loaded with unlikely story lines, which raises a question about the significance of fairy-tale plots for human experience. Perhaps an answer lies in Shakespeare's use of one such fairy-tale element-the casket test set for Portia's suitors demanded by her father's will-to reveal nuances of character....

30 min
The Merchant of Venice-Shylock

08: The Merchant of Venice-Shylock

Is Shylock a fairy-tale villain? We examine the tripartite stereotype that underlies the character, and consider how great actors have played him from the 17th century to the present. Might it be that his most famous speech, with its vengeful logic, in fact implicates all of us?

32 min
Measure for Measure-Sex in Society

09: Measure for Measure-Sex in Society

At first glance, this play appears to be a conventional comedy, but it turns out to have a plot of unusual intricacy involving sorely troubled characters, and its portrayal of human sexuality is unsettling. Desire, instead of being romantic or lighthearted, here leads to self-hatred and uncharitableness.

31 min
Measure for Measure-Justice and Comedy

10: Measure for Measure-Justice and Comedy

As the curtain comes down on the (in some cases) contrived and unpromising marriages that end this "problem comedy," we are forced to wonder: Is comedy itself a problem? Even in the hands of a Shakespeare, can it contain the stresses of the human condition?

31 min
Richard III-Shakespearean History

11: Richard III-Shakespearean History

Shakespeare's histories belong to a category of plays that is unfamiliar to us, but which was important and popular in his day. Shakespeare was especially ambitious in this genre, in which he so brilliantly interweaves the "public" and "private" aspects of persons and events. Why does Richard III, of all the history plays, contain such a weight and richness of historical detail...

28 min
Richard III-The Villain's Career

12: Richard III-The Villain's Career

Despite the length and detail of Richard III, a firm structure dominates. At the heart of the action is the titular villain. His aides amuse us and make us his confidants, sharers in his sense of superiority over his victims. Yet Richard's crimes mount to the point where we no longer can or will identify with him. On his final night their enormity at last hits him, and this master of asides develo...

29 min
Richard II-The Theory of Kingship

13: Richard II-The Theory of Kingship

Elizabethan political theory held that the monarch is God's anointed; disobedience and rebellion are grievous sins and invite divine wrath. Richard is the legitimate king, yet Bolingbroke appears to be the abler ruler. What is more to blame for Bolingbroke's challenge to Richard: The former's temerity or the latter's inadequacies? And can a rebel terminate the damage done by an erring (yet lawful)...

29 min
Richard II-The Fall of the King

14: Richard II-The Fall of the King

Although a crucial character, Bolingbroke is opaque. We cannot be sure when and why he decides to reach for the crown. Richard, on the other hand, is eloquently self-expressive: Shakespeare gives him beautiful and evocative speeches. Where does the power of Richard's language come from? How does it manifest his character? Does it evoke sympathy-or irritation? Does Richard ever move beyond the limi...

30 min
Henry IV-All the King's Men

15: Henry IV-All the King's Men

The two plays named after Henry IV constitute the most diverse accomplishment by any Western playwright in the staging of history. This lecture summarizes the political narrative of the plays, and stresses how the triangle of King Henry, Hotspur, and Falstaff provide a context for the central figure of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne.

30 min
Henry IV-The Life of Falstaff

16: Henry IV-The Life of Falstaff

This lecture traces the theatrical "ancestry" of Falstaff, who in Shakespeare's version becomes the bringer of holiday, the prime subverter of the conventional, serious view of things. Against him is set his friend Prince Hal, the ruler-to-be who must decide what to do about Falstaff, the lord of misrule.

30 min
Henry V-The Death of Falstaff

17: Henry V-The Death of Falstaff

This scene in Act 2 of Henry V echoes with an amazingly rich array of emotional resonances and allusions. Shakespeare imagined a finely detailed scene full of mixed and complex feelings, any one of which can reasonably be highlighted in a particular production on reading. Shakespeare does with words what Michelangelo did with paint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel....

31 min
Henry V-The King Victorious

18: Henry V-The King Victorious

The contemporary response to Henry V has both continued an earlier celebratory tradition and paired it with a modern distrust of war and politicians. The play offers some support for both of these opposed interpretations, but such a binary view is too simple....

29 min
Romeo and Juliet-Shakespearean Tragedy

19: Romeo and Juliet-Shakespearean Tragedy

In Shakespeare's time, the word "tragedy" was used loosely to mean any story about calamity, especially a fall from a high place. Shakespeare creates many kinds of tragic effects and leaves his characters free to seek the meaning of their own lives. The special characteristic of Romeo and Juliet lies in the derivation of a situation usually used in comedy: young lovers attempting to esca...

31 min
Romeo and Juliet-Public Violence and Private Bliss

20: Romeo and Juliet-Public Violence and Private Bliss

Romeo and Juliet is especially remarkable for its structure and its poetry. The story is organized around three large scenes, and moves at a pace that matches the violence of the actions and emotions. With a special form of lyric poetry, Shakespeare creates for his young lovers a space set apart from quarrelling Verona and dedicated to an ideal love....

31 min
Troilus and Cressida-Ancient Epic in a New Mode

21: Troilus and Cressida-Ancient Epic in a New Mode

Handling source material from Homer and the Middle Ages, Shakespeare sharply qualifies its heroism and romance with bleak realism, and even flippant cynicism. We examine the speeches of Ulysses, the posturing of Achilles, the scurrilousness of Therisites, and the brief but telling presentation of Helen of Troy.

31 min
Troilus and Cressida-Heroic Aspirations

22: Troilus and Cressida-Heroic Aspirations

Troilus and Cressida continues with a detailed examination of Cressida and Hector. Cressida loves Troilus and wishes to be faithful to him; circumstances also make her reliant upon men and the power of men for her value. Hector, Troy's main defender, is thoughtful about the values at stake in the war, and caught in some of the inner contradictions of chivalry. The play might end with a conventiona...

31 min
Julius Caesar-The Matter of Rome

23: Julius Caesar-The Matter of Rome

This play holds a special place in modern culture because of its frequent assignment in schools. It also had a special status for Shakespeare, both because of its timing in his career and because of the prestige ancient Rome held for the Renaissance. His chief source, Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, was a work he handled with respect....

30 min
Julius Caesar-Heroes of History

24: Julius Caesar-Heroes of History

The characters in Julius Caesar see themselves as actors in history, and often speak and behave in an appropriate lofty and ceremonial fashion. The ceremonies, however, are sometimes qualified by other deceremonializing effects. Caesar, Cassius, and Brutus each display a complex mixture of traits that make him uniquely admirable-and uniquely flawed....

31 min
Hamlet-The Abundance of the Play

25: Hamlet-The Abundance of the Play

What makes Hamlet a classic? Is it the mixture of familiarity and strangeness that makes us see an "old thing made new"? Is it the range of characters and actions, the variety of the hero's traits, or the cunning articulation of events within the narrative? Is it the way Hamlet calls up "thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls"?...

30 min
Hamlet-The Causes of Tragedy

26: Hamlet-The Causes of Tragedy

The characters in Hamlet are remarkably thoughtful. Indeed, Hamlet himself is the only Shakespearean hero whose university we know, and he himself explores theories about the causes of tragedy posed, respectively, by Aristotle, Boethius, and the prophet Isaiah....

31 min
Hamlet-The Protestant Hero

27: Hamlet-The Protestant Hero

Hamlet is a compellingly abundant figure. He unforgettably embodies the perennial variety and problems of young manhood as well as the wit, attainments, and lofty ideals embraced by the Renaissance. And as if that were not enough, he also dramatizes the profound spiritual and intellectual problems raised by the Protestant Reformation.

30 min
Othello-The Design of the Tragedy

28: Othello-The Design of the Tragedy

What makes Othello unique among Shakespeare's tragedies? For one thing, it's almost two plays in one-a romantic comedy that turns into a tragedy. Certainly this cannot be said of Hamlet, Lear, or Macbeth! We see Shakespeare at work here with his usual abundant genius, transforming genre to achieve dramatic effect....

30 min
Othello-

29: Othello-"O Villainy!"

What motivates Iago? Is he rational or irrational? Does his wickedness somehow transcend all its possible motives? Shakespeare is a dramatist, not a solver of abstract intellectual puzzles. But what we see makes us wonder: What is the cause of evil?

30 min
Othello-

30: Othello-"The Noble Moor"

Othello differs from the other great tragedies in many ways, not least in its lead character. Comparing Othello with Hamlet is highly revealing, as is asking why Othello deserves his sobriquet as "the noble Moor."...

31 min
King Lear-

31: King Lear-"This Is the Worst"

Lear is a towering work, a tragedy in any sense of the word, a moving-even brutal-experience to read or watch. It is a complex play, with double plots, intrigue, psychological depth, and physical and emotional horror. It is a play about disintegration, about human lives and worlds coming apart-socially, psychologically, emotionally, physically....

31 min
King Lear-Wisdom Through Suffering

32: King Lear-Wisdom Through Suffering

The title of this lecture derives from The Agamemnon of Aeschylus. There is immense suffering in both plays, and from this comes wisdom for the characters and the spectators as well. Thus we turn from "disintegration" to "coping" and particularly coping that leads to insight and self-recognition....

30 min
King Lear-

33: King Lear-"Then We Go On"

By the middle of the play, the characters have, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Beckett, fallen "far from help." How do they face adversity? As an unparalleled play of the human condition, Lear provides us with the full panoply of situations, emotions, and lessons....

31 min
Macbeth-

34: Macbeth-"Fair Is Foul"

Like Shakespeare's other great tragedies, Macbeth explores timeless themes such as cosmic and human order and the nature of good and evil. There are also questions of religious significance (for example, free will versus predestination) embedded in the play, as we would expect in the post-Reformation world in which Shakespeare worked....

31 min
Macbeth-Musing on Murder

35: Macbeth-Musing on Murder

Macbeth's soliloquy or interior monologue on the idea of murdering King Duncan puts us inside Macbeth's thoughts. Through this and other uses of the soliloquy, Shakespeare is able to develop several perspectives for his audience to consider as the play progresses.

30 min
Macbeth-

36: Macbeth-"Enter Two Murderers"

In this final lecture, we continue with Lady Macbeth, whose case is every bit as interesting, complex, and compelling as her husband's-if not more so. We explore the sexual undercurrents and overtones of their relationship and look into the realm of "imagination" as we analyze this most searching Shakespearean portrayal of human self-destructiveness.

32 min