Archive for The Great Courses

My Father Gave Me Honor, Yours Gave Land

Posted in King John with tags on 2014/03/08 by mattermind

King John, Act I

Once again, thanks to the Great Courses for an exhilarating class on Medieval English History.  Without it, this play would fly straight over my head and be utter gibberish.  Shakespearean gibberish, of course – and me the lesser for my misapprehension.  But gibberish nonetheless.

Count it then a measure of the class’s sweep and scope that I started the play on the very edge of my seat.  I already knew going in that John is considered one of the least successful kings in English history (to put it mildly) – so much so that only he, along with Stephen, remain the two royal names never to have been used again.

As presented in the lecture devoted to his disastrous reign, there are many reasons for his catastrophic failures.  In college I learned about the significance of the signing of the Magna Carta, the first document to reign in the unchecked powers of a king.  But until now, I had no idea what forced John into making this great unprecedented concession.

Now I know that John took on three great opponents…and lost.  He lost to Pope Innocent III, who pronounced a papal edict that forced John into accepting the Pope’s choice for the Archbishop of Canterbury; he lost most if not eventually all the English holdings in France to King Phillip, including Normandy and Brittany that had been in English possession since William the Conqueror; he lost absolute rule to the English people, who resisted John’s overtaxation and legal abuses.  When John successfully appealed to the Pope to annul this agreement, claiming he had done so under duress, he initiated a civil war against his own people, many of whom had become so fed up they turned to France with an invitation to be invaded.  King John came to be loathed that much!

Armed with this background, I eagerly began the play, curious how Shakespeare would dramatize the dysfunction.  As usual, I was unprepared for the particular tact that he took.  For after a swift, logical opening which centers us amid the ongoing conflict with Philip of France, Shakespeare occupies John with an odd paternity dispute involving two of his subjects.

I’m like, what the what?  Why this sudden shift in gears, this introduction of a strange subplot?  What does it have to do with the big picture?  As the details emerge, it becomes clear that an older brother is being usurped by a younger sibling who claims the elder is a bastard.  The “bastard” protests, only to discover that he bears a striking resemblance to the former king, Richard the Lionheart.

So much so, in fact, that Eleanor of Aquitaine is immediately prepared to accept him as her grandson and bring him back with her to France.  The bastard is no idiot; he recognizes the opportunity and swears allegiance to Eleanor, forswearing in the process his claim to his inheritance.  Not such a bad deal when your dad turns out to have been a well-respected king.

But was he really the father?  There seems to be some doubt, even in the bastard’s own mind, when who should happen to drop by but good ol’ mom.  She’s furious, and quite rightly so it would seem, that her reputation has been impugned by two sons caring more about their own financial stakes than how this will look for her.

After a bit of protest, she then confesses that Richard the Lionheart indeed begat “the bastard” who has in the meantime been knighted a full Plantagenet by King John!  What formerly had been bad news could not have turned out any better for the newly named Richard.  He thanks his mother for having the good fortune to have been forcibly seduced by a king.

And thus we end Act I.  Maybe – just maybe – with the help of the Great Courses, the history plays that I had feared as virtually impenetrable won’t turn out to be indomitable after all!


Cymbeline: An Introduction

Posted in Cymbeline with tags on 2014/02/20 by mattermind

While I normally frown upon mixing plays, I wanted to preface March’s turn toward the histories by sharing an audio program I have begun from the Great Courses.

I am not being sponsored by them; I just happen to be a huge fan. So when it came time to making a crucial decision about how to tackle Shakespearean history, I went the unusual route of following the historical chronology rather than the order Shakespeare wrote them.

While I am curious about Shakespeare’s development as a playwright, I am even more eager to eliminate a blight in my own education. Because of my fascination with intellectual history, I have habitually followed the collapse of Rome with Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, the Italian Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, leaving a near complete absence of the very material that this course covers.

Forgive my innocence, but I really had no previous understanding of English vs. British history, how the Scots and Welsh preserved their independence, or how the Irish “saved civilization.” From the development of Christianity, to feudal kingdoms and parliamentary law, I honestly had no grasp on the full extent of my ignorance.

Here is the video intro to the course that I am studying in 36 audio instalments. If it plays like an infomercial, well, that’s basically what it is:

Now I understand the historical background of Cymbeline. I’m not sure how much it will help me figure out the play, but at least I have a running start.

[Note: Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth have been removed from the chronology so they can be read sequentially later on. While they each have a historical component as well, their literary legacy transcends time, comprising the single greatest hot streak any author has ever achieved – as we’ll discuss later.]

I can’t tell you how exciting this is! Shakespeare has already led me down paths I never expected to follow, becoming an entire education unto himself. It’s a journey I heartily encourage you to take up for yourself.

And now we return to our original programming.

Month One [A Summary]

Posted in Monthly Summary with tags , , , on 2014/02/01 by mattermind

Travel Journal

The majority of this blog is dedicated to the project of reading all of Shakespeare’s works within the span of a single year. Every so often (the end of the month seems a good time), it’s important to stand back and survey the terrain covered thus far, to attempt to make sense of what I have learned about Shakespeare and his plays, but also – and equally important – to assess the impact (if any)doing so has had upon my life.

Attempting to tackle the entirety of Shakespeare’s canon is a bit like globetrecking or climbing Mount Everest. One assumes that the view from the top will be life-changing, that the process of leaving home and setting off on the adventure will exert an influence akin to a junior year abroad, a gap year in Africa or sailing around the world.  But is that assumption accurate?

It could just be another dumb cliché in my own head, an easy metaphor ripe for debunking. So it’s important to take notes from the road, to stay honest, alert, and focused. I must continually ask questions honestly and confess whether or not all this effort is worth it. Is the experience fun? Enlightening? Does it change the way I write or view the world? Would I recommend it to others?

As I type this, a month has passed since the start of the new year and the launch of this endeavor. I have finished three plays at this point: Othello, Titus Andronicus and Richard III. In doing so, I have discovered my woeful lack of knowledge regarding English history and succession – a weakness I plan to remedy in February with one of The Great Courses (more on that later).

Looking back, I had a few options about how to map out the trip: a) strictly chronological regardless of genre b) thematic c) chronological within genre d) random, willy-nilly, whatever I felt like tackling. I decided to launch with Othello, the greatest play by reputation that I had never read before, and followed it with Titus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, following up with Richard III, a tragic history I vaguely remembered from high school.

That sequencing was not the best. Yet the plays have much in common, strong villains being the primary. Othello set the bar tremendously high. Titus proved a gruesome yet strangely rewarding task – teaching me to observe that Shakespeare’s true intentions might not be plainly obvious. And Richard III walloped me with the realization that a grounding in basic English history would serve me well, especially with many more historical plays to follow.

What I like so far: Shakespeare’s language is becoming more familiar, less daunting while increasing its impressiveness (if that’s possible) with time and practice. I check the footnotes less often, intuit a meaning from context that often turns out to be accurate enough. I have learned that Shakespeare tailored his dialogue to individual characters, whereas before I naively assumed he wrote…I don’t know…”Shakespeare-ese.” His craft has become much more noticeable, how he condensed character and time to fit the 5-act structure. His flare for drama and conflict is pronounced. He was a consummate showman. His scenes never bore, advancing the plot, setting a mood or deepening a character. Every role leaps off the page or stage in 3-dimensions. Personalities such as Iago, Aaron, Desdemona, Titus and Richard III become iconic, metaphorical and utterly unforgettable. They each sound unique, act distinctly, represent a quadrant of soul set apart with their own tone and timbre such as members of my own family and friends. Shakespeare is a genius in manifest ways that I have only begun to explore.

What I don’t like: the scope and scale of the tragedy thus far. I am done with murder and treachery, ready to move on to the comedies, romances, the sonnets – anything with a little promise of happiness. I also am not thrilled with my own ignorance about history and context. As the saying goes, the more I learn, the less I know. But it’s also important to remind myself that this process has just started. I must allow myself room to breathe, to expand, to absorb, to develop. Associations will come. The context will gradually fill in. No matter how stupid I may feel at any one moment in time, the experience as a whole is deeply enriching my life.

Three plays in one month creates a nice pace, on schedule but overall slightly behind where I need to be to complete my year’s sojourn on time. I will have to make up ground and February should provide ample opportunity, since the comedies are shorter, lighter and breezier than the histories and tragedies. Love shall prove a suitable theme around Valentine’s day. I look forward to Love’s Labor’s Lost most of all, a play that I have never attempted before. Taming of the Shrew, on the other hand, is one of my all-time favorites.

I recently received a copy of The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays by Kenneth Muir which will get added to the repertoire in February. It traces Shakespeare’s development as a writer, based upon how he adapted background materials. This should help quench my yearning desire to understand Shakespeare’s apprenticeship and mastery as a playwright.

I continue to make progress in Shakespeare: the Biography and Will in the World. I have also begun a Great Courses program by Peter Saccio called: “Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories and Tragedies” available HERE.

Yet the more resources I bring to bear, the more highly I value the St. John’s credo of reading each text for myself. It may sound overly romanticized or too Dead Poet Society for some people’s liking, but the real joy comes from the direct encounter with each play, the excitement generated by not knowing what’s about to happen. Like travel, nobody can do the hard work for you. Nor can they convey what the authentic, first-hand experience is like.

So get out there. Set forth. Pick up a play or attend one. Join Audible. Start your own journey somewhere and then follow through. This blog will serve as a companion. But Shakespeare will always be our guide.