Shakespeare’s Hamlet occupies a unique position within the cultural memory of the Western world — and indeed within the imagination of the global intellectual community. This course aims to investigate why this should be so. Beginning with a close reading of the play as a literary icon, but also as an opportunity for creative performance, we will consider the allure this masterwork continues to have for developing an understanding of the nature of tragedy. In doing so, we will focus our attention on the historical and political conditions that determine competing and compelling traditions of interpretation and performance.
But the focus of this course is by no means limited to a discovery of literary and dramatic perspectives, as valuable as these may be to any introduction to the question at hand. Shakespeare’s work has been a point of departure for any number of interdisciplinary studies, embracing areas as various as philosophy, the “new” historicism, jurisprudence, psychology, politics, psychology, geography, feminism, and the history of art (the list is not complete). The year 1564, the date of Shakespeare’s birth, also marks the birth of Galileo and Cervantes, as well as the death of another remarkable figure of this historical moment, Michelangelo. Such artists and thinkers helped to shape the very notion of the word “renaissance,” at the same time that their work urges us to rethink the origins of what we mean by term as complex as “early modernism.”
In order to understand “what happens in Hamlet,” this course aims to configure the play within the artistic and intellectual crosscurrents not only of its time but of our own. Readings will be rich and varied, with selections drawn from Aristotle (The Poetics), Machiavelli (The Prince), Voltaire (he thought the play was “vile” and “vulgar”), biography (Greenblatt’s Will in the World), Freud, Galileo, art criticism, and discussions of the construction of tragedy from Shakespeare to the present.
What is the underlying rationale for this course? Simply put, the opportunity it offers students to consider a high point in our common cultural literacy and legacy, and the way that legacy continues to shape and enlighten our understanding of our own historical present.
Students will be asked to write weekly response papers and also to complete a major term project based on performance, research and interpretation.
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