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Instructor Class Description

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Herbert Blau
ENGL 494
Seattle Campus

Honors Seminar

Survey of current issues confronting literary critics today, based on revolving themes and topics. Focuses on debates and developments affecting English language and literatures, including questions about: the relationship of culture and history; the effect of emergent technologies on literary study; the rise of interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities.

Class description

English 494A--Honors Seminar in Shakespeare: History, Tragedy, and the Future of Illusion

"What, art thou mad? art thou mad? is not the truth the truth?" That comic outburst of Falstaff, covering up with indignation the lying truth by which he lives, might in a frivolous moment also be applied to Shakespeare, who lives on through scholarship and performance in often conflicted ways, all of them subject to the vicissitudes of history. As with the inspired casting of a Shakespearean role, every critical strategy is likely to be reductive, even as it guarantees certain kinds of interpretation or opens up by incurring risk perhaps forgotten possibilities. It may be precisely what's left out that permits other prospects to come in. What encumbers any criticism is not so much its exclusionary tendencies, but the failure to realize--even through the closest reading--that it may be extruding something, since all readings are at best provisional, temporal, more often than not historical compensation.

As a social form, the drama is not an autonomous event, preserved from the abrasions of history and the liabilities of performance by the labors of scholarship in a certified text. Whatever makes the play also makes history, though it is a distressing habit of history that, down to the last syllable of recorded time, much of it is lost, if not somehow consigned to the future of illusion. Nevertheless, in criticism today an attentiveness to history has been on the scene, more or less dominantly so, in the form of a "new historicism" or "cultural materialism" or, through the auspices of "deconstruction," the deployment of psychoanalysis, feminism, neo-Marxism, postcolonialism, racial and gender studies, and queer theory, as virtual instruments of revisionist history. This is by way of preface to the quite specific issue that will impel our study in this seminar, even as it raises the question of attitudes to history or, given the history (or histories) privileged in the curriculum today, alternative ideas of history.

Since it's unlikely that many of us are historians, we shall come at that as best we can through the problematic of the Shakespearean text--in this case, particularly, the abiding crux of tragic drama, with its burden of illusion and awesome mortifications. Since deconstruction and the advent of the new historicism, the status of tragedy--from Oedipus to Hamlet--has been, if not entirely discredited, certainly looked at askance, not only as an exalted form in the literary canon, but as a mystification of history that, in representing atrocity and appalling misuses of power, makes them seem unalterable, deterring social change. It is to this critique that the subtitle of the seminar refers, not the history plays and the tragedies, but the question(ing) of history in the tragedies, with attention to the ways in which, from Titus Andronicus to Macbeth or King Lear to Coriolanus, the distressing powers of tragic vision may take the measure of any critique.

The text for the seminar is The Riverside Shakespeare (most recent edition). If you happen to have some other collection, you can use that instead, though line references and editing may differ somewhat.

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Robert E Jansson
Date: 06/11/2008