Shakespeare’s Tragedies and History Plays (S12)

Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario

 English 234:
Shakespeare’s Tragedies and History Plays


Andrew Bretz
Office Hours: Wednesday 11.30-12.30
Skype ID: andrewbretz
Skype Office Hours: TBA
Twitter ID: @andrew.bretz001

Course Description:

 A study of representative tragedies and history plays, with an emphasis on their dramatic, theatrical and cultural contexts.

 Shakespeare’s place at the centre of the canon of English literature remains largely unchallenged, despite attempts in recent decades to include the previously occluded voices of women, persons of non-European descent, and other marginalized groups.  This course does not seek to displace Shakespeare from his central position in the canon – no single course could do that – rather, this course situates the cultural construction of “Shakespeare” through the centuries from his own time to today.  By looking at both the plays and the reception and adaptation of the plays, we will investigate how different periods have created “Shakespeare” in their own image.  We will pay particular attention to four areas:

  1. Editorial and textual history of the plays and how they have shaped/been shaped by the dominant textual modes of a given historical period
  2. The theatrical history of a given play – when it was produced and when it was not produced, who starred in it and what were the audience’s expectations of the play at that historical moment
  • Critical tradition as regards the play, ranging from New Criticism to New Historicism, Romantic aestheticism to Bowdlerization.
  1. Students own reactions/reception of the texts and modern media constructions of the texts.

I want students to start to question why the ideological underpinnings of Shakespeare’s early modern texts, which are in some cases misogynist, racist, and tending towards violent chauvinism.  Ultimately, I will be posing the question, if these texts are indeed filled with racism, violence and misogyny, and our contemporary culture repudiates these qualities, then why is Shakespeare still at the centre of the literary canon?

Course Objectives:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of the historical construction of “Shakespeare,” where “Shakespeare” is a signifier of cultural capital.
  2. Articulate a complex argument regarding Shakespeare’s deployment of “History” and “Tragedy” as genres in the form of a research paper.
  3. Present a familiarity with the generic qualities of history and tragedy.
  4. Demonstrate familiarity with how genre influences the performance conditions of a play at any given time, including changes in performance styles; theatrical design; publication regimes.
  5. Demonstrate mastery over the language and the plot of Shakespearean plays through creating a visual representation of the play.


Required Texts:

Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus.  Ed. Lee Bliss.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.  ISBN 9780521728744.

–.  Hamlet.  Eds. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor.  London: Cengage Learning, 2006.  ISBN 9781904271338.

–. Macbeth. Ed. Nicholas Brooke.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990 (2008).  ISBN 9780199535835.

–. Richard II.  Ed. Kenneth Muir.  London: Penguin B, 1999. ISBN 9780451527196.

–. Richard III. Ed. Peter Holland. New York: Penguin B, 2000.  ISBN 9780140714838.

–. Titus Andronicus. Ed. Eugene Waith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984 (2008). ISBN 9780199536108

Description of Examinations and Major Assignments:

The entire assignment structure of this course is geared towards making the final papers as strong as possible.  Thus, the final paper and the assignments leading to the final paper comprise 65% of the final grade. All assignments (with the exception of the Midterm) must be presented in accordance with MLA guidelines.  The final grade will be weighted as follows:

Shakespearean Relationships: 20%

This assignment is inspired by the diagrams created by David and Ben Crystal in Shakespeare’s Words and the Mandala resource (for more, please see created by researchers at the University of Alberta.  Visual representation of Shakespearean plots is a growing field of study in digital humanities approaches to early modern drama (please see for more information).  In this assignment you are expected to create a graphic representation of the different relationships between characters in one of the plays under study (excluding Hamlet)  This graphic representation should indicate (Among other things) mutuality of relationships (eg. spouses) and the directionality of a relationship between characters (eg. servants).  The spheres in which any given character moves must be clearly shown.  You are only required to do this for a single play.  These assignments are due the day we begin studying a given play, thus if you wish to hand in your assignment on Richard III, your assignment is due on May 30.  If you choose to do your assignment on Coriolanus, you will hand in your assignment on June 13.  Do not hand in more than one assignment.

Weekly Quizzes: 25%

Each week, we will have a content quiz.  Each quiz will be worth five (5) percent.  The best four (5) marks of those five (6) quizzes will comprise the 20% of this grade.

Final Paper: 45%

The final paper should be anywhere between 2000-2500 words.  The paper must be presented in accordance to MLA guidelines.  The due date for the essay is the final day of classes, with papers to be returned to students who wish to recover them during the exam period, no less than two weeks after the last day of classes.  Those who wish their papers returned to them must indicate so on their papers and make arrangements with me to get the paper back to them prior to handing in their paper.

Class Participation: 10%

Participation in group discussions both online and in class, semi weekly one minute papers, familiarity with the texts under question and attendance all will be a part of this grade.  Class participation grade will be completely at the discretion of the instructor.


Above and Beyond (Optional): 10%

(Optional)  “The Above and Beyond” portion of the grading allows students to design and execute a small project on their own to supplement their grade.  These projects may be anything from a book précis to a short play based on the themes explored in the class; a podcast to a videogame based on the course material.  These projects are to be approved by me beforehand by the end of the third week at the latest.  During the approval process, the instructor and the student will negotiate a rubric by which the project will be evaluated.

Grade Distribution:

Shakespearean Relationships:  20%
Content Quizzes                      25%
Final Paper:                              45%
Class Participation:                  10%

Above and Beyond (Optional) 10%
Total                                        110%


Weekly Reading Schedule


Date (Mondays) Reading Date (Wednesdays) Reading
May 7 Hamlet May 9 Hamlet

Content Quiz # 1

May 14 Macbeth May 16 Macbeth

Content Quiz #2

May 21 Victoria Day May 23 Richard II

Content Quiz #3

May 28 Richard II May 30 Richard III

Content Quiz #4

June 4 Richard III June 6 Titus Andronicus

Content Quiz #5

June 11 Titus Andronicus June 13 Coriolanus
June 18 Coriolanus

Content Quiz #6




An assignment is considered “late” if the student and I have not agreed at least 24 hours beforehand to an alternate deadline to the one noted on this course outline.  Students handing in essays late will be docked 5% per calendar day until the essay is handed in or until 10 calendar days have passed, at which time the assignment will receive 0%.  Extenuating medical circumstances will, obviously, be grounds for compassionate waiver of late penalties.


Accessible Learning

Students with disabilities or special needs are advised to contact Laurier’s Accessible Learning Office for information regarding its services and resources.  Students are encouraged to review the Calendar for information regarding all services available on campus.


Academic Misconduct

Wilfrid Laurier University uses software that can check for plagiarism,  Students may be required to submit their written work in electronic form and have it checked for plagiarism.


FOOT Patrol


After evening classes call 886-FOOT for a walk or drive home – No Walk is Too Short or Too Long!!!@