SEL3393 : Shakespeare's Show Business

Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


The English Renaissance is often seen as a golden age for literature, symbolised for many by the figure of William Shakespeare. It was a period of huge cultural change with the first commercial theatres built on the outskirts of London, and cheaply printed play-texts being sold across Britain. It was also a dangerous time to be a professional writer, as Ben Jonson found out after multiple stints in prison for mocking the authorities in his plays.
At the heart of this module is a simple question: what did it take for a writer like Shakespeare to succeed in this precarious new entertainment industry? The module takes an interdisciplinary approach to this question, by reading a selection of literary texts alongside historical documents like the diary of theatre impresario, Philip Henslowe. We will learn about the material conditions of the Renaissance stage and page, for example with an archival trip to see early printed books up close, and will culminate in workshops in which we will explore the performance possibilities of the early modern stage.

Aims of the module:
By the end of the module, students will be expected to:
•       Demonstrate an understanding of selected early modern literary texts and their historical context.
•       Interpret primary and secondary texts critically with reference to debates about theatrical and print authorship.
•       Conduct and demonstrate independent thought and research in the selection and analysis of texts.
•       Demonstrate an awareness of the material conditions of the early modern stage and print.

Outline Of Syllabus

This course will be taught through a combination of lectures, seminars, theatrical workshops, and blogging.
Your mid-term assessment will be based on your contributions to the research blog (each student will lead one week’s topic discussion between weeks 2-6) and a reflective blog-post written for week 7.
You can choose to present your end-of-term assessment as an essay, a creative project, or an oral presentation.

Week 1: Introduction to the course, how early books were made, and setting up your research blog.
Week 2: Theatre History. How do we know anything about Shakespeare’s plays and theatre practices? To answer this we will explore the publication of plays, Henslowe’s diary, and how actors learned their ‘parts’.
Week 3: Censorship and anti-theatricality. Was the theatre an immoral place, and were plays dangerous? This week we will consider both sides of the debate by staging a mock debate.

Key concepts:
Week 4: Paratexts. How did books advertise themselves to their readers, and what role did patrons, publishers, and authors play in this process? We will also visit the archive to see early modern books up close.
Week 5: Posthumous fame. This week we will look at the First Folio’s presentation of Shakespeare, and the role Mary Sidney played in transforming her brother Philip Sidney into a cultural icon after his death.
Week 6: Authorship. This week we will look at collaborative authorship, the ‘stigma of print’, and how writers like Robert Greene blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction.

Staging early modern texts:
Week 7: Collecting poetry and staging Venus and Adonis. This week we will look at the original circulation of Shakespeare’s popular work, and explore how modern theatre companies have staged this poem.
Week 8: Choosing between Dr Faustus. Marlowe’s play exists in two distinct versions, so how does this effect the way we interpret and stage this play, and others like it such as the three versions of Hamlet?
Week 9: Light, audiences and The Duchess of Malfi. The early modern public stage used shared natural light between actors and audiences. This week we will explore how this effects soliloquys, crowd scenes, and what happens when we move indoors to the private playhouses with Webster’s macabre revenge tragedy.      
Week 10: Meta-theatre. This week we will be exploring metatheatrical scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Massinger’s The Roman Actor and asking whether they can be performed as a defence of, or an attack on the theatre’s role in society?

Week 11: Further explorations. This week will include student-led workshops of scenes or texts chosen by you. There will also be a drop-in surgery for guidance on the end-of-term assessment.
Week 12: Last minute drop-in surgery and reflection on the course before submission.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion130:0030:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture181:0018:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading180:0080:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching81:008:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesWorkshops81:3012:00Theatrical practices
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesFieldwork12:002:00Visit to archive
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesDrop-in/surgery21:002:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study134:0034:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyOnline Discussion72:0014:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Lectures will introduce the students to key literary texts, key concepts, and critical paradigms used on the course. The seminars will allow students to examine literary texts and historical documents more closely, and to develop their interpersonal communication and analytical skills. The theatrical workshops apply rehearsal techniques to the study of dramatic texts so that students can approach the close reading of plays as both a performance and a text. Students will gain the confidence to test out their readings through collaborating and experimenting. The research blog will give students the opportunity to reflect on their learning, and to develop their leadership and group skills by taking it in turns to lead the group discussion of a key theme on the course material. Regular feedback from the course leader will also mean that students can monitor their own progress on the course. The course will include a visit to the Robinson library archives, where students will ‘adopt a book’ and interact with this archival material by tracing the network of people behind the production and circulation of their book.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Portfolio1M30a) Participation in group blog, each student leading at least one week’s discussion and b) Individual reflective blog post.
Portfolio1A70EITHER 3,000 word essay, OR 20 min. oral presentation with bibliography, OR creative response with 2,000 word written rationale
Formative Assessments
Description Semester When Set Comment
Prof skill assessmnt1MActive participation in course exercises
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The mid-term assessment is based on group and individual participation in blogs. During weeks 2-6, students will lead one week’s group discussion, and in week 7 they will write a reflective blog-post on their learning. Formative feedback will be given each week, and a combined mark will be given for the blog as a whole, and on individuals’ contributions. Regular contribution and formative feedback allows students the opportunity to practise the skills necessary for their final assessment.

Students will have the option to submit their end-of-term assessment in the form of (a) a 3,000 word essay, (b) a 20 minute oral presentation, or (c) a creative response to the course material. The presentation will be supplemented with a bibliography detailing the primary and secondary sources used. The creative response to one or more of the texts will be driven by a clear research question, and will include a written rationale of 2,000 words.

The oral and creative options would allow students the opportunity to develop their presentation skills. All options will allow students the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of how changes to the material and cultural context of the period had an impact on literary texts which they will select themselves. This will be an opportunity for the student to connect detailed analysis of their chosen literary text with the module’s broader thematic design.

Reading Lists