William Shakespeare and his World


Lesson 1

1. Shakespeare's English & Sonnet 18. There is an analysis of the rhymes in this sonnet here.

Printed materials for this lesson:

Shakespeare's English
Introduction to Hamlet

Online versions of Hamlet:

Study guides:

It is sometimes useful to look at several of these study guides, since they may emphasize different points, or even give different interpretations of the text. Here are some of the more popular ones:

SparkNotes This has a video summary, along with the usual summaries by scene, explanations of characters and analysis of the plot.



Cummings Study Guide

Verily, I do hope ye will enjoie this courfe!


Lesson 2

2. The historical Shakespeare and the authorship "debate".

Printed materials for this lesson:

Shakespeare the man

Shakespeare the man (class print)

Useful links:


In my lecture, I argued for the "Stratfordian" position (that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare), but please study this yourselves and make up your own minds. Here are a couple of websites for and against, just to be fair!

The Shakespeare Authorship Page This is the most comprehensive site representing the established view, that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare (which he did!).

Shakespeare Authorship Pages A useful set of links to online articles arguing that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

The Shakespearean Authorship Trust This claims not to take sides, but basically it is in support of the "anti-Stratfordian" position (i.e., that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare).

The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition This site aims to make the anti-Stratfordian position academically respectable.

Hamlet, Scenes 1 & 2


There are many important themes in these two opening scenes; the study guides linked for lesson 1, above, will introduce you to most of them. The one I'd like to focus on most is the nature of the ghost itself. The question that comes up, all through the play is whether the ghost is really the spirit of Hamlet's father, or whether it is some kind of demonic being that is tempting Hamlet into evil and so condemning him to hell. Here are a couple of useful links:


Perceptions of the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet This is a basic introduction to the topic.

Robert Rentoul Reed: Crime and God's Judgment in Shakespeare (extract) Catholics and Protestants had very different ideas about the existence and identity of ghosts. This explores the theology behind the portrayal of the ghost.


Lesson 3


3. Shakespeare and Catholicism.

Printed materials for this lesson:

Catholics and Protestants (class print)

Dictation (complete text)

Shakespeare and Catholicism article



Links, etc.:

In my lecture I argued that Shakespeare was not openly Catholic. He may have had Catholic sympathies, at least during some periods of his life, but it is not possible to know what he believed in his heart. If he was secretly a Catholic, then that secret died with him.

However, Professor Peter Milward, who retired from the English Literature department 20 years ago (just as I was joining it!), and who still lives on campus in SJ House, argues strongly that Shakespeare was a Catholic.

Professor Milward

There are many online sources for Professor Milward's theory that Shakespeare was a Catholic. For example:

Shakespeare's Secret Faith

Five Full Years of "The Catholic Hypothesis"

Experts, Historians Explore Shakespeare's Catholic Sympathies

These are just a few of the many web pages that will help to introduce you to the hypothesis that Shakespeare was a Catholic. To research the subject properly, though, you will need to go to academic databases, like JSTOR, and search there.If you are on the university campus log-in is automatic; if not, you need to go through the Sophia Virtual Private Network. You can download articles and save them to read later. See here for more information.

Professor Milward has also written a number of books on this subject. You can find them in Sophia University Library (which also has a "Peter Milward Collection" of Renaissance scholarship), or ask me; I have copies of most of his work.

Lesson 4

4. Elizabeth I

The history of Elizabethan England is almost as good a story as anything Shakespeare wrote, and it would be difficult to discuss his work without giving a sense of the historical context. This class and the following aim to fill that gap.

Class print (with gaps)

Class print (complete)

This is the complete file of my paper from lesson 3:

My article on Shakespeare and Catholicism with the thesis statement and a summary of the supporting arguments.

Lesson 5

5. James I

Class print (with gaps)

Class print (complete)

A complete set of PowerPoint presentations, covering British history

up to 1714 (the end of the Stuart dynasty) can be found here.

Lesson 6

Today I began looking at research and research methods. We looked at Pinker on violence and I talked about its relevance to Shakespeare's time. Pinker argues that the sixteenth century was a watershed period in the decline of violence, and attributes it to the rise of the nation state as a form of social organization. Hamlet can be understood in the context of an ongoing debate about whether to take revenge oneself or accept the mechanism of justice provided by the state..


The twin theses of the "civilizing process" and the "decline of violence" have been popularized in recent times by Stephen Pinker. In the above video he presents his arguments in support of the thesis that violence is in slow and steady decline.

Not everyone agrees with Pinker about this. Click here for a summary of the debate.

Noam Chomsky is one of a number of noted academics who argue against Pinker

Lesson 7

The aim of this lecture was to give a sense of what the theatre was actually like in Elizabethan times. Although we look up to Shakespeare now, we should not forget that the theatre in his day was not considered completely respectable. This is one of the topics explained in the following video by Tadao Sato:

Tadao Sato on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre

Dictation exercise (with gaps)

Dictation exercise (complete)

We also watched two reconstructions of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The first was from a movie production of 1943:

Lawrence Olivier in Henry V

The original theatre was destroyed built in 1599 and destroyed by fire in 1613. It was rebuilt a year later, but again destroyed, this time by Puritans, in 1644. A replica was built some twenty years ago and opened in 1997:

The modern Globe Theatre, a replica of the original

Next week there will be a short test. There will be 15 questions based on the prints and 15 about Acts 1-3 of Hamlet. Questions will be multiple-choice (choose one correct answer out of four options).

Lesson 8

Gender issues. Was Shakespeare gay (and who cares)? Gender roles in the Elizabethan theatre. Women in early modern society.

Shakespeare and gender

Class print (with gaps)

Class print (complete)


Lesson 9

Today we reached an important turning point in Hamlet. While accusing his mother of marrying her husband's brother only a short time after her husband's death he realises someone is listening to the conversation and stabs that person through the curtain, thinking it is his uncle, the king. In fact it is Polonius. From this moment on, Hamlet's fate is clear. He has killed an innocent man in pursuit of his desire for revenge and now it is clear that he himself must come to a bad end. If you missed this class, please study Act 3 in general, and Scene 4 in particular.

The Tudor legacy

In this presentation I try to explain the religious, political, artistic and literary culture of Shakespeare's England. OK, that's too much to do in one class, but I'm just covering some of the basics. This video is a slightly different version from the one I gave in class.

Class print (with gaps)

Class print (complete)


Lesson 10

Modern research methods. Using the computer as an aid to studying Shakespeare and the early modern period.

Shakespeare and the digital age

Class print (with gaps)

Class print (complete)


Lesson 11

Themes in Hamlet. 1: Loyalty.

Loyalty and allegiance in Hamlet.

Class print (with gaps)

Class print (complete)

Don't forget to e-mail me and let me know what topic you are planning to write about for your term paper!

Lesson 12

Themes in Hamlet. 2: Death

Death, destiny and depression in Hamlet.

Class print (with gaps)

Class print (complete)

I will collect prints 5-12 on July 4th. there will be a final test on July 11th. The deadline for the term paper is the end of July. Don't forget to e-mail me early and often about your paper!


Lesson 13

Themes in Hamlet. 3: Masking and metatheatre

Masking,mirrors & metatheatre

Class print






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