Shakespeare and the Modern Self

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What is this course is about?

English
How does Shakespeare affect the modern sense of self? Despite what you might believe, the modern western sense of self stems from none other than Shakespeare. In this course we’ll explore four of Shakespeare’s plays and see how each play gives rise to a specific part of our modern definition of the self.

The four plays we'll learn and investigate are:
• Romeo and Juliet
• Richard the II
• As You Like It
• Hamlet
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Syllabus

Ben Johnson, one of England’s best known Renaissance poets, describes William Shakespeare as “a poet for all time.” 

And it’s true that Shakespeare's works have survived through the generations. Over 400 years later, they are still widely read and performed. 

But, was Shakespeare more than just a poet? In this course, I’ll be showing you how he was. Much more. He was, what I call, a dramatist of the Renaissance. 

Through his works, Shakespeare brought the themes and questions of this formative period alive. Pressing questions of individuality and how it can function within a community. Questions that are just as relevant today as they were almost half a millennium ago. Perhaps even more so.

In this lesson we’ll look at the still-beloved play Romeo and Juliet. We’ll examine how this early play of Shakespeare brings to life the issues of individualism and agency that were so relevant then and today. 

We’ll learn:
• How the individual emerged from the collective during the Renaissance
• Why the Romeo and Juliet’s society was so toxic
• How Juliet showed Romeo how to become an individual
• How Juliet went from being subjugated to a subject in her own right

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Ever thought of what it would be like to write a poem with a complete stranger? Well, that’s actually how Romeo and Juliet first fell in love. Sound like a strange first date?

In this lesson, we will see how poetry writing helped the two lovers leave the toxic world they were in. The language they developed through writing a poem is their first act of developing a relationship that can exist outside of their social constructs, a relationship of individuals. 

We’ll look at:
• How Shakespeare changes the way we speak about love 💖
• Romeo’s experience with the toxic masculinity of Verona
• The significance of the religious imagery in the couple’s first poem 🙏🏽

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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.” 

This is the question which Juliet poses and which we’ll tackle today. Juliet longs to ignore Romeo’s name, because it’s his status as a Montague that means they can’t be together. Can the couple get around this challenge, can they make their love last despite their names?

In this lesson, we’ll look at the difficulty of expressing something transcendent in a world of restrictive names and labels. 

We’ll talk about:
• Finding individual spaces away from one’s community 👨‍👨‍👦‍👦
• Romeo and Juliet’s final legacy as statues in Verona 🗿🗿

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Why does banning something suddenly make it so much more interesting? In today’s lesson we’ll talk about Richard II, a Shakespearean play that was censored by Queen Elizabeth I who was the monarch at the time. We’ll look at how this play continues Shakespeare’s exploration in individualism and which scene was the one that made Queen Elizabeth so uncomfortable. 


We’ll look at:
• Why Richard’s story fits the theme of individualism 1️⃣
• Whether Shakespeare was a patriot or a rebel 🦹‍♂️
• What happens when an individual is stripped of their societal role

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Who are you if you don’t know who you are? That’s the question that our protagonist, Richard II, must ask himself as he is stripped of the only role he has ever played. Divinely ordained King of England. However, what is truly interesting about this play is it seems that losing his power only makes Richard more of an individual. Join us to see how the more this character suffers with the melancholy of existential confusion, the more Shakespeare’s audience - us included - can begin to relate to him. 

In this lesson, we will discuss:
• Richard’s humanity coming to replace his social role
• “Ay no; no ay” 🤷🏽‍♀️
• The significance of Bolingbrook’s silence as he takes the kingship from Richard 😶

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What happens when you look inward and find nothing but turmoil? In this lesson, we join Richard in the last chapter of his life and observe what true melancholy looks like for him. 

Sound depressing? Well it is, a bit. However, it’s an important addition to our conversation on the types of individuality and how they can manifest. And in order to understand the full spectrum of individuality, we must also dive into Richard’s melancholy. 

We’ll discuss:
• Tensions between our internal and external selves 💥
• The many roles many of us must play in our lives
• The isolation of melancholy 🙎🏻‍♂️

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Imagine a magical forest where anything is possible…where you are free from the rules you have known your whole life. Where everything is a bit magical and personal transformation is just waiting to happen. And after Richard II, we can certainly use a bit of uplifting magic!

Welcome to the Forest of Arden. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we’ll see how a cast of characters enters this forest and finds themselves changed and transformed. 

We’ll talk about:
The setting of the play and the characters 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦
Shakespeare’s take on the traditional pastoral genre 🐑🐑🐑

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What do you think of when you think of” holiday”? Is it that ski trip you took last winter? Or perhaps a religious occasion, surrounded by family and friends. Or maybe it just means a day off of work. You know, one  where you can wake up whenever you want to and then spend the whole day in your PJs. 
Well it turns out that in Shakespeare’s time, the concept of holiday was a bit different. Although there is a forest involved, this isn’t the hiking holiday you might have in mind. Instead, the Forest of Arden is a place of poetry, magic, and transformation. What exactly does this mean? 

Join us to find out! We’ll learn:
What comedy looked like in Shakespeare’s time 🤣
The true magic of the Forest of Arden 🌳✨

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In literature, genre is important. When a writer follows the conventions of a particular drama, they establish a relationship with their readers. The readers know what to expect, which establishes a common language between them and the writer. And, when the writer is clever, they can break the rules of the genre they are writing. When done well, this signals to the reader that it’s time to pay attention, that what’s happening is important. 

And this is exactly what happens with Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On the surface, it appears to be a simple pastoral comedy. However, if you look a bit closer you’ll see that everything is not exactly what it seems like. And it’s those elements - those rule breaking elements - that we’ll talk about in this lesson. 

We’ll look closer at:
• The character of Jaques 🙋🏽‍♂️
• Why the timing is important
• Why the weather is important 🌧

Let’s crack this mystery together! See you in class...

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Why did literary critic Frank Kermode call Hamlet the greatest tragedy written in 2500 years? How is this play a culmination of everything we’ve seen in Shakespeare over this course? And how is it completely different?

These are some of the questions we’ll be answering as we kick off our very first lesson on the great Hamlet. And, most of all, we’ll begin to answer why this play is the perfect way to end off our course on Shakespeare and the Individual. 

We’ll look at: 
• Hamlet as an individual 🙋🏼‍♂️
• The role of the feminine in Hamlet 💃🏼 
• The roles of playing and acting in Hamlet 🎭
• The role of revelation in Hamlet 📜

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“The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King!”

How did Hamlet decide to stage a play to confirm that his uncle was a murderer? What does the act of drama have to do with truth? And most importantly, how does this tie into the image of Shakespearean individuality that we’ve been building throughout this course?

We’ll consider these questions and more, as we discuss:
• Hamlet’s philosophy 🤔
• Hamlet and the act of playing, of drama 🎭
• Hamlet and the tradition of the soliloquy 🗣

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Have you ever felt compelled to action, yet unsure of exactly what to do? If the answer is yes, you might be able to relate to Hamlet. In this lesson, we’ll see him through his indecision and inability to take immediate action. 

We’ll see how Shakespeare brings in the character of Laertes as a foil to Hamlet. Through Laertes, Shakespeare presents another version of the revenge character, one who is decisive and not wracked with the types of anxieties that Hamlet is. 

We’ll discuss:
• The struggle over the play’s ending 🎭
• The paralysis of inaction
• Laertes, the true revenge figure 🤺

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Why is Hamlet the perfect way to end a course on individualism? How does the character Hamlet express his individuality in a way that’s different from other characters we’ve discussed - Juliet, Richard II, and Rosalind?

In this lesson, we’ll look at Hamlet as the culmination of out discussion on individuality. We’ll discuss:
• Why Hamlet is known as “the poem unlimited” 📜
• The connection between death and individualism
• What is means to “defy augury” 💪🏽
• Hamlet’s request that his story be told after his death 

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Courses Authors

Prof. William Kolbrener

Professor of English and author, Chair - Department of English, Bar Ilan University

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