Shakespeare is everywhere. Four centuries after his works first appeared in print and on stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, new productions of the plays are produced daily around the globe, while film and television adaptations transform his works, repeatedly renewing them for modern audiences. References to Shakespeare’s language are impossible to avoid. Some call the latest political scandal “much ado about nothing,” even as the accused complains about the “slings and arrows” they must endure from their critics. Philosophers contemplate the meaning of Hamlet’s delay or Iago’s enigmatic statement “I am not what I am.” A copy of Shakespeare’s collected works circulated secretly in South Africa’s Robben Island prison, where it was read and signed by political dissidents including Nelson Mandela. As one becomes more familiar with Shakespeare, these cultural references seem to multiply exponentially.
For modern readers, Shakespeare is an unprecedented literary genius, an author with a reputation borne out by the 1623 “First Folio” printing of his collected plays. But Shakespeare’s legacy has not always been so certain. His works appeared in different forms—productions and editions, artworks, commentaries—from the moment of his death. This seminar will explore how Shakespeare’s afterlife has been shaped by the transmission of his writing across the intervening centuries. Unsatisfied with the depressing ending of King Lear, the Irish poet Nahum Tate rewrote the play in 1681 with a happy ending. In the 18th century, cultural luminaries including Samuel Johnson and David Garrick would reimagine the plays to suit their age. Garrick, an actor and playwright, would elevate Shakespeare to the level of British national poet when he organized the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Shakespeare inspired artwork by masters including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Henri Fuseli, and John Everett Millais, as well as copiously illustrated editions of the collected plays. Modern philosophers drew on Shakespeare for insight, as Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche among others engaged with the ideas they found in his plays. Shakespeare was central to the great thinkers of modernity, including Freud and Marx, and as a standard part of the grammar curriculum in the U.K. and the U.S., his work has been taken up, bowdlerized, and abridged for generations of schoolchildren.
Drawing on the rich archive of material related to Shakespeare and his afterlives in the Newberry Library, this course will be organized around four disciplinary areas—Literature and Bibliography, Politics and Education, Philosophy, the Visual Arts. We will read selections of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays alongside materials from the archive and scholarship on changing attitudes toward Shakespeare in the centuries since his plays were first produced. The focus will be on the material traces Shakespeare left behind in the library’s collections, as well as the influence and evolution of his legacy over the past four hundred years.
Over the course of the semester, students will be introduced to the many different kinds of materials housed in the library, including rare books, playbills, educational materials, political and philosophical works, and visual materials including broadsides, book illustrations, prints, paintings and sculptures. In the process of engaging with these materials, each member of the seminar will develop a research project that will be the focus of their time during the second half of the course.