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How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

Learn to fully appreciate Shakespeare with this utterly unique course outlining over 40 interpretive tools that reveal his unsurpassed genius.
How to Read and Understand Shakespeare is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 88.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Authorship is the key I studied Shakespeare at university. Here's what I have come to understand. The plays make no sense if seen from the eyes of the grain merchant from Stratford. However if seen through the eyes of Earl of Oxford not only does it make sense but you see the autobiographical elements in plays such as Romeo and Juliet and most certainly in Hamlet. But I'm always willing to listen to others explain what they see.
Date published: 2023-12-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just what I needed Fabulous! I had never been quite able to crack the 'code' when it came to Shakespeare. The archaic language, the rhythm of the verse, the stagecraft . . . it was all too difficult for me to wrap my arms around. After watching this course however, I feel like a locked door has been opened to a secret world. I look forward with enthusiasm to exploring more – by reading, attending staged performances, and watching movie versions of all his major plays. Great job by an excellent professor!
Date published: 2023-12-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Instructor's delivery is riveting For me, Shakespeare has always been incomprehensible. After taking this course I will pursue seeing at least a few Shakespeare plays in the theatre. I can't say enough about how much the instructor's delivery and enthusiasm for the subject influenced me.
Date published: 2023-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and informative Energetic professor who really knows and loves his Shakespeare. Very well conceived and executed set of lectures, which integrate language, literature, drama, history, philosophy and religion well. A cut above the normal teacher.
Date published: 2023-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Variety and New Approaches to The Plays He calls them tools, but they are keys to open meaning, dramatic technique, and understanding Shakespeare, the writer, actor, and thinker.
Date published: 2022-08-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Fun Course I feel this is a very good course that illuminates the various ways that one can appreciate how Shakespeare’s plays can be well understood. Several aspects of the course though detract in my opinion from its value. The first is the professor’s injecting religion into the proceedings. At first this is just an occasional annoyance, but with each instance the irritation increases. The second, and the hardest to ignore, is that the professor constantly dances around his stage which is terribly distracting. Other newly produced Great Courses have professors abandoning their podiums and moving around. This might be seen by some as making the courses more alive but which in reality makes them less alive by distracting the students and making it more difficult to concentrate seriously on the coursework. This course also gives the impression of being tailored for a younger audience. The professor is very animated, and I think that this too distracts from the educational seriousness. This is a fun course, a very good fun course, but I would have preferred a more serious tone.
Date published: 2022-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very engaging lectures I'm enjoying the new insights that this series of lectures is offering me. I've taken other Shakespeare courses through the Great Courses but I'm always delighted to find new ones. This course is very engaging and I'm very glad that I ordered it.
Date published: 2022-05-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional for Shakespearean Readers This course is one of the best Shakespeare courses. Professor Connors, besides being a captivating lecturer, reveals many of Shakespeare's core writing devices clearly while providing students with the tools and methods to read critically and understand the main structural core of Shakespeare's dramas. He gives us x-ray vision, allowing us to view beneath the surface and see more deeply into a master playwright's great works...something nearly impossible without a great teacher.
Date published: 2022-04-01
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Shakespeare enjoys near-universal agreement among scholars as well as the general public that his works are among the greatest of humanity's cultural expressions, and that we all should know and understand them. But, simply put, Shakespeare is difficult. His language and culture-those of Elizabethan England, 400 years ago-are greatly different from our own, and his poetry, thick with metaphorical imagery and double meanings, can be hard to penetrate. Now, in the 24 revealing lectures of How to Read and Understand Shakespeare by award-winning Professor Marc C. Conner of Washington and Lee University, you can learn a set of interpretive tools, drawn from the texts themselves, that give you direct insight into Shakespeare's plays. These guiding principles allow you to follow the narratives of the plays as they unfold, with a clear understanding of how the plays function and fit together. The tools you learn are yours for years of enjoyment of these monumental treasures of our culture.


Marc C. Conner

We see that the story, properly understood, reveals multiple layers of history and experience.


Skidmore College

Marc C. Conner is the President of Skidmore College. He earned degrees in English and Philosophy at the University of Washington (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude), followed by master’s and doctorate degrees in English at Princeton University. He was previously the Jo M. and James Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University and served as provost and chief academic officer from 2016 to 2020. He also taught at Princeton University and the University of Notre Dame.

Professor Conner is a specialist in modern literature, particularly Irish and American literature. He is a regular presenter at the major Irish studies gatherings, including the Lady Gregory–Yeats Autumn Gathering in Galway, the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, and the Trieste Joyce School. He serves as secretary/treasurer of the Ralph Ellison Society and presents regularly at the American Literature Association annual conference. At Washington and Lee University, he created a study abroad program in Ireland, and he has led adult education programs to Ireland and other Celtic lands. He also received the university’s Outstanding Teacher Award and the Anece F. McCloud Excellence in Diversity Award.

Professor Conner’s books include The Poetry of James Joyce ReconsideredThe New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty-First CenturyThe Selected Letters of Ralph EllisonScreening Modern Irish Drama and FictionScreening Contemporary Irish Drama and Fiction; and Global Ralph Ellison.

By This Professor

How to Read and Understand Shakespeare
The Irish Identity: Independence, History, and Literature
The Great Tours: Ireland and Northern Ireland
How to Read and Understand Shakespeare


Approaching Shakespeare-The Scene Begins

01: 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

02: 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

03: 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

04: 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

05: 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

06: 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

07: 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

08: 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

09: 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

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