Spring 2005

Shakespeare and the Death of Kings

Friedberg,Harris A.

01/24/2005 - 05/07/2005
Tuesday 06:00 PM - 08:30 PM

Fisk Hall 115

In 1649, in an act that terrified and outraged the monarchies of Europe and beyond, the English people executed their king, Charles I. Yet the deaths of kings had been created and enacted in drama, in plays like Marlowe's EDWARD II and Shakespeare's RICHARD II, almost fifty years before the poet Andrew Marvell likened the doomed king to a "royal actor" on a "tragic scaffold." This course interrogates the role that popular culture performed on the public stage played in this contestation of authority and power, asking whether it was necessary for a society to enact the ruler's death in its popular culture before it could occur in fact.

To attempt an answer, we will look briefly at Renaissance political theory and its articulation of the ideals of absolute sovereignty on one hand and the resistance to tyranny on the other, and at how these ideas are represented in one of the very first Elizabethan tragedies, GORBODUC. We will then look at how the English tragedies of Marlowe and Shakespeare establish the two genres of political tragedy, one drawing on British legend and one set in an exotic or foreign locale. With RICHARD II we will consider how plays became political acts themselves. In Shakespeare's Roman plays, JULIUS CAESAR and CORIOLANUS, we shall interrogate the terror of Shakespeare and his age toward republican government and the many-headed multitude, while in HAMLET and MACBETH, we shall treat his critique of absolutism. In Middleton?s REVENGER'S TRAGEDY and Webster's WHITE DEVIL, we shall see how playwrights were able to comment scathingly on the decadence and corruption of King James's court by drawing on lurid continental scandals. The course will consider the thesis that Shakespeare's tragic stage discredited the claim that kings are consecrated, God's anointed deputies, enabling the radical thought that culminated in the first revolution and the execution of the king.

In addition to the above texts, students will read from a packet of essays.

Students will be responsible for a brief essay, a presentation, and a final paper, due on the day scheduled for final exams/presentations.

Harris Friedberg (B.A. Harvard University; Ph. D. Yale University) is associate professor of English. Recent publications include: "Prose and Poetry: Wimsatt's Verbal Icon and the Romantic Poetics of New Criticism," Poetics Today, 26 (2005). Click here for more information about Harris Friedberg.


Consent of Instructor Required: No

Format: Seminar

Level: GLSP Credits: 3 Enrollment Limit: 18

Texts to purchase for this course:
Anonymous, REVENGER'S TRAGEDY (W.W. Norton), Paperback

Thomas Kyd, THE SPANISH TRAGEDY (W.W. Norton), Paperback

Christopher Marlow, EDWARD THE SECOND (W.W. Norton), Paperback

Christopher Marlow, TAMBERLAINE (W.W. Norton), Paperback

William Shakespeare, RICHARD THE SECOND (Thomson), Paperback

William Shakespeare, JULIUS CAESAR (Thomson), Paperback

William Shakespeare, HAMLET (Cambridge University Press), Paperbak

William Shakespeare, MACBETH (Bedford), Paperback

William Shakespeare, CORIOLANUS (Cambridge University Press), Paperback

Webster, WHITE DEVIL (W.W. Norton), Paperback


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