Venice, a major trading port, was the crossroads of East and West in the medieval and early modern period, and the two plays that Shakespeare set principally in the city are greatly concerned with race, prejudice and the clash of cultures. In this class, we will study three Shakespeare plays with connections to Venice and the Veneto and read them with particular regard to issues such as cultural stereotyping, intercultural communication and the construction of civil society. The Merchant of Venice contains the character of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, whose name has passed into popular culture and whose representation is still problematic and controversial today. The titular character of Othello, the “Moor of Venice,” is reviled for falling in love with and marrying a white woman, Desdemona, and his lieutenant Iago engineers his fall by manipulating his insecurities. Romeo and Juliet, set not in Venice but in Verona, is famous for its love story, but the star-crossed romance between the lovers is set in the context of civil unrest and blood feuds.
There will be a strong performance element to this class, and each week will be divided into thematic discussion of the issues raised and engagement with the language and themes of the play through workshopping performances of short scenes, which will allow us to address the difficulties of staging sensitive racial and cultural themes in contemporary theater. As well as reading the Shakespearean texts we will incorporate viewings of filmed stage performances and feature films of the plays from different periods and cultures. Students will be assessed on both their critical responses of the plays and on a creative project
in which they will stage a short scene of their choice from one of the plays, either live or recorded.
• Students will be able to read and analyze Shakespeare’s plays.
• Students will acquire knowledge about attitudes to race and gender in Shakespeare’s time.
• Students will develop performance skills.
• Students will become sensitive to issues surrounding the staging of potentially offensive material.
Week 1: Introduction: Shakespeare and Italy
Week 2: Romeo and Juliet 1. Introduction to Comedy and Tragedy.
Week 3: Romeo and Juliet 2. Love sonnets from Petrarch to Shakespeare.
Week 4: Romeo and Juliet 3. Civil society / civil unrest.
Week 5: Merchant of Venice 1. Portia, marriage and gender roles.
Week 6: Merchant of Venice 2. The othering of Shylock.
Week 7: Merchant of Venice 3. Law and language.
Week 8: Othello 1. Race and prejudice.
Week 9: Othello 2. Rhetoric and performance.
Week 10: Othello 3. Tragedy.
Week 11 and 12: Performances of creative projects
Students may choose between two options for the final assessment: a final essay or a creative project.
Final essay. Students will write an essay (c. 8 pages) reflecting on a theme or issue raised in the plays studied in class. Your essay may consider just one play, or two, or may compare all three plays studied. If you choose, your essay can take into consideration actual performances of the play(s) - for example those available on the Globe player site or the Global Shakespeares site. But if you prefer your discussion can be based only on the written play. In either case however, you should be able to provide examples from the play to illustrate and support the arguments you make in your essay. All students should consult me about their proposed essay topic before beginning to write. Essay to be submitted via Moodle by midnight on Thursday 13th December -- extended deadline midnight on Monday 17th December.
Creative project. Students will work individually or in small groups to produce a dramatic interpretation of a scene or a speech from one of the plays, which may be acted live or filmed. Besides the creative performance you should be prepared to explain the thinking behind your interpretation and to answer questions from the class about both the initial idea and the practical decisions you made about staging.
Class participation in discussion and performance workshops will count as 20% of your final grade.
No previous knowledge required.
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.
William Shakespeare, Othello.
All texts available online (open access) at http://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org
Peter Hall, Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players. Oberon Books, 2003.
Graham Holderness, Shakespeare and Venice. Routledge, 2010.
Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History, from the Restoration to the Present. OUP, 1991.
Laura Tosi and Shaul Bassi, Visions of Venice in Shakespeare. Routledge, 2011.