How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Must for Anyone Interested in Shakespeare I've taken several course on Shakespeares both in school and on the GC website. This is by far the best course. Unlike other course on Shakespeare, it delves into the techniques the Bard used to create meaning—techniques that can be applied to any Shakespeare play to help a viewer better understand a Shakespeare play. Put simply, the course is rich with insights on both the technical aspects of the plays and their themes and worth the investment. Dr. Connor's delivery, meanwhile, is lively, engaging, and interesting. It keeps the viewer involved and interested through all 24 lectures.
Date published: 2020-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Now I understand Shakespeare! I have to admit, I hated to read in high school and hated to read Shakespeare. We only studied Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet plays. And those I remember only slightly. I was wondering if "How to Read and Understand Shakespeare" would be worthwhile to purchase. It certainly was! Professor Conner was a perfect lecturer. He mentioned that he acted, and it shows. He is very animate and his Shakespeare quotes flow off his tongue as though he wrote the plays' lyrics. If he was using a teleprompter, it sure doesn't show in his discussions. He presents as though you are the only one to which he is speaking. This course is not one that should be taken just to get a summary of each Shakespeare play. It is more than that. Professor Conner details the devices that Shakespear uses in his plays. These devices are common to all his plays or are specific to his tragedy, comedy, history or romantic play styles. He does use the essence of the plays to demonstrate these devices. There are about 40 of these devices that Shakespeare uses in his plays. For example, the "Fair is Foul" device is used in many of Shakespeare's plays. I don't want to list all of his devices, because that would take the pleasure out of listening to the lectures. When I say, "listen" I mean that you could watch or listen (to the audio version) to this course and get most of the ideas. This is the first course, out of 55, which I have taken, that I can say this. Usually, it is better to watch the video version of the Great Courses. However, I think watching and listening to Professor Conner is at least 50 percent of the value of this course. Professor Conner's take on the meaning of Shakespeare's plays and the words Shakespeare used, has given me a new perspective on the three plays of which I was familiar. For example, "To be or not to be..." is expressed by Hamlet because of a religious motif Shakespeare was using. I had not heard that explanation, before. It makes sense, after listening to Professor Conner's synopsis. He, also, details what makes a tragedy different from a comedy and why some plays are part tragedy and part comedy, or neither! Professor Conner does not discuss all Shakespeare's plays, only those that he considers are representations of the ideas of Shakespeare. I hope Professor Conner would consider a second course to discuss the remaining Shakespear plays, that he didn't cover in this course. I could go on, but, if someone is interested in Shakespeare, at all, I would highly recommend this course. It was a joy to watch and learn about Shakespeare and his plays.
Date published: 2020-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Covers the idea of the course perfectly The professor is fantastic. He explains Shakespeare and his plays at a level that is so easily understood & relatable. He has inspired me to read & view the plays he discussed (even at this senior stage of my life).
Date published: 2020-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Marvellous journey through Shakespeare The professor is extraordinarily well versed in all things Shakespeare and he makes the plays come alive . Most importantly he provided a toolkit of super tools to analyze and understand Shakespeare plays .
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent throughout Dr. Conner is articulate, easy to listen to, and exceedingly knowledgeable. I recommend his course on Shakespeare without reservation. Superb!
Date published: 2020-08-06
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I have not taken them yet! YOU GUYS MOST LIKELY WONDER WHY IT IS YOU DO NOT GET REVIEWS!! Yet you have the ability to ask for a review after you are certain that the customer has jsut finished the series, if they are streaming and the majority of today's buyers STREAM. So do your self a favor and set up a program to trach that ad then quick like a bunny, send your request for a review. Dennis Tavernetti
Date published: 2020-07-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great course! I really learned a lot about how to appreciate Shakespeare both in the written word and in theaters. I love the way the Professor used "tools" to make the Bard's plays more accessible.
Date published: 2020-07-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Shakespeare comes alive and becomes understandable Professor Connor does an excellent job of translating Shakespeare and pointing out various devises used in the plays. I am a homeschool mom and I have three high school students taking this class. They all stated that this class is not only interesting and entertaining, but also very helpful in understanding Shakespeare's works.
Date published: 2020-05-06
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How to Read and Understand Shakespeare
Course Trailer
Approaching Shakespeare-The Scene Begins
1: Approaching Shakespeare-The Scene Begins

Consider four points of entry for understanding what's happening in a Shakespeare play. Learn how to approach a single dramatic scene, focusing on Shakespeare's richly metaphorical use of language. Begin to grasp the playwright's use of stagecraft, and how his plays require your own active participation and powers of imagination.

32 min
Shakespeare's Theater and Stagecraft
2: Shakespeare's Theater and Stagecraft

Here, envision theatrical London as it existed in Shakespeare's time. First, consider Shakespeare's fundamental intent to "hold the mirror up to nature"-to imitate the living world. Then learn about the colorful milieu of Elizabethan theater; its conventions of physical space, scenery, and costumes; and how the playwright created theatrical "reality" through language.

30 min
A Midsummer Night's Dream-Comic Tools
3: A Midsummer Night's Dream-Comic Tools

In his comedic plays, Shakespeare drew on the classical Roman model of comedy. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, see how he expands the form, using the archetypal plot devices of "blocked love," its resolution at either the altar or the grave, and the escape from urban life to the magical world of the forest.

34 min
A Midsummer Night's Dream-Comic Structure
4: A Midsummer Night's Dream-Comic Structure

This lecture explores key principles for understanding and appreciating Shakespeare's comedies. Grasp the thematic elements of a shift from friendship to romantic love and of severe testing of the characters. See how the three-part structure of the comedies leads inevitably to reconciliation and regeneration.

30 min
Romeo and Juliet-Words, Words, Words
5: Romeo and Juliet-Words, Words, Words

Shakespeare's primary tool as a playwright is words themselves as dramatic expressions of character and meaning. In Romeo and Juliet, see how Shakespeare ingeniously uses language to distinguish class and personality, and how he uses the poetic form of the sonnet in creating a sublime language of love.

32 min
Romeo and Juliet-The Tools of Tragedy
6: Romeo and Juliet-The Tools of Tragedy

Continuing with Romeo and Juliet, observe how the famous balcony scene shifts the action and sense of the play toward a new kind of character-driven tragedy. In the play's unfolding, note the role of the tension between fate and free will, and the arc of development whereby Juliet becomes a great tragic figure.

31 min
Appearance versus Reality in Twelfth Night
7: Appearance versus Reality in Twelfth Night

As one of his outstanding "mature" comedies, Twelfth Night reveals themes and elements that are keys to all of Shakespeare's plays. Discover how the comedy revolves around crises of identity, the need to distinguish external appearance from internal reality, and a reversal of power roles

32 min
Twelfth Night-More Comic Tools
8: Twelfth Night-More Comic Tools

In Shakespeare's encompassing vision of Twelfth Night, observe how the young characters' movement toward self-knowledge and mutual love contrasts with plot elements of isolation and rejection. See how the remarkable heroine Viola, a figure of grace, acts as an agent of redemption for the entire world of the play.

31 min
Richard II-History and Kingship
9: Richard II-History and Kingship

In his history plays, Shakespeare addresses profound issues of politics, philosophy, and religion. In Richard II, engage with core thematic elements that drive the history plays: the question of the "divine right" of kingship, the larger meanings of historical events, and the conflict between brothers-an emblem for civil war

33 min
Politics as Theater in Henry IV, Part I
10: Politics as Theater in Henry IV, Part I

Here, the dynamic of appearance versus reality illuminates the making of a king. In the dual world of the Court and the Tavern, witness Shakespeare's use of theatrical role-playing to reveal Prince Hal and Falstaff to themselves, and grasp how Hal's journey to kingship takes on the nature of a calculated "performance."

30 min
Henry IV, Part 2-Contrast and Complexity
11: Henry IV, Part 2-Contrast and Complexity

As an interpretive tool, define Part 2's stark differences with the preceding play, noting its shifting depictions of courage and honor, and its characters' reversals of fortune. Follow Prince Hal's dramatic metamorphosis as he assumes the throne, disavowing the dissolute life he lived and embracing the course of justice and order.

30 min
The Drama of Ideas in Henry V
12: The Drama of Ideas in Henry V

In plumbing the riches of one of Shakespeare's greatest history plays, assess Henry's ambiguous relation to God as he manipulates faith and religion to his political ends. Grasp also how Henry employs the dynamics of theater, brilliantly "staging" each of his critical actions, and how he defeats the expectations of his French foes.

30 min
Macbeth-"Foul and Fair"
13: Macbeth-"Foul and Fair"

In Macbeth, Shakespeare reveals a world in which everything becomes its opposite. Study how reversals of reality and meaning dominate the play, seen vividly in the recurring dynamic of betrayal and the politically charged tension between appearance and reality. See how the playwright uses "comic relief" to ultimately heighten the horror you've witnessed

32 min
The Tragic Woman in Macbeth
14: The Tragic Woman in Macbeth

Shakespeare's great tragic women are central to the functioning of his tragedies. Here, encounter the powerful figure of Lady Macbeth and observe how her arc of development as a character inversely mirrors her husband's. Grasp how Macbeth poignantly sounds the depths of meaninglessness as he confronts the abyss of his own making.

29 min
Staging Hamlet
15: Staging Hamlet

Discover how Hamlet's opening scene reveals many of the crucial themes of the play. Then delve into the use of acting as a major dynamic of the story, as Hamlet ultimately takes action through the devices of theater, staging a play to determine the course of his own fate.

30 min
The Religious Drama of Hamlet
16: The Religious Drama of Hamlet

A deep look at the religious and theological issues at work in Hamlet unlocks the meanings in Shakespeare's most celebrated play. Study three important moments of religious contemplation within the play, and see how Hamlet's hesitance to avenge his father's murder is enmeshed with his foreboding sense of the afterlife.

31 min
The Women of Hamlet
17: The Women of Hamlet

Two crucial women illuminate the core themes and dynamics of Hamlet. Grasp how Gertrude, who speaks only in moderation, compellingly underlines the issues of loyalty and betrayal that drive the story, and how Ophelia, torn between irreconcilable male figures, becomes a sacrifice to the tragic forces of the play.

31 min
The Merchant of Venice-Comedy or Tragedy?
18: The Merchant of Venice-Comedy or Tragedy?

In this extraordinary play, Shakespeare explores the dark undercurrents of comedy to the fullest. Delve into the crisis of identity that each character faces, the theme of perilous risk, and the plot elements of loss and sacrifice that work against the play's comic structure.

29 min
The Arc of Character in The Merchant of Venice
19: The Arc of Character in The Merchant of Venice

Begin this lecture by tracing the historical background of Judaism in Elizabethan London, and how the portrayal of Shylock conforms to contemporary conventions of comic villains. Then see how Shakespeare breaks free of the stereotypes of his time, developing the character and the play as a penetrating meditation on justice and mercy.

31 min
Measure for Measure-Is This Comedy?
20: Measure for Measure-Is This Comedy?

With Measure for Measure, you enter the world of Shakespeare's "problem plays"-dramas that seem neither truly comic nor tragic. Here, observe how Shakespeare creates Vienna, the play's setting, as a place of hypocrisy, deception, and trickery, where nothing is what it seems and all the tenets of comedy are subverted.

30 min
Measure for Measure-Overcoming Tragedy
21: Measure for Measure-Overcoming Tragedy

This lecture uses the interpretive tools of both comedy and tragedy to mine the deeper meanings of Measure for Measure. Study how the playwright treats plot elements and character relationships that show the hallmarks of tragedy, finally overturning them in a surprising and transformative resolution of the story

31 min
Tools of Romance in The Tempest
22: Tools of Romance in The Tempest

At the end of his career, Shakespeare developed the form of drama known as his Late Romances. Here, learn how The Tempest exemplifies the three-part structure of the Romances, as the magical figure Prospero "stages" a series of trials for the shipwrecked characters, leading them through suffering to ultimate reconciliation.

32 min
The Tempest-Shakespeare's Farewell to Art
23: The Tempest-Shakespeare's Farewell to Art

Begin this lecture by investigating the spiritual significance of The Tempest's island setting as a testing ground for humanity's nobler nature. Then grasp how Shakespeare seems to speak directly to us through the figure of Prospero, whose final renunciation of his magical art mirrors Shakespeare's own farewell to playwriting.

30 min
The Tools for a Lifetime of Shakespeare
24: The Tools for a Lifetime of Shakespeare

The many interpretive tools you've studied leave you with the ability to engage meaningfully with any Shakespeare play. In concluding, look at three plays you have not yet studied in detail-Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, and As You Like It-and see how the tools allow you to directly appreciate their structures, devices, and deeper meanings.

32 min
Marc C. Conner

Although the world urges us to read and love Shakespeare, his plays are difficult, demanding, strange-most of us struggle just to make sense of Shakespeare, let alone to see the many reasons why he is held in such high regard.


Princeton University


Washington and Lee University

About Marc C. Conner

Dr. Marc C. Conner is the Jo M. and James M. Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Professor Conner earned his bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy at the University of Washington and his master's and doctoral degrees in English literature at Princeton University. At Washington and Lee, Professor Conner received the Anece F. McCloud Excellence in Diversity Award in 2009 and the Outstanding Teacher Award in 2004. In 2005, he restructured the department's introductory Shakespeare course into a dynamic and interactive seminar on Shakespeare as both poet and playwright, emphasizing the dramatic elements in the plays and producing an annual Shakespeare play performed by students. Professor Conner teaches a regular course on performing Shakespeare and has taught and lectured on Shakespeare to a variety of audiences. A dedicated advocate of global study, he created the Spring Term in Ireland Program, which he has directed six times, taking students to Ireland to experience Irish literature, culture, and history. With a scholarly focus on 20th- and 21st-century narrative and poetry in several national traditions, he has edited or coedited four books and has published more than 40 essays, articles, and reviews.

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