Great Courses Company: How To Read and Understand Shakespeare

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I was a theater minor at Hillsdale College. When I participated in the Oxford exchange, I travelled to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see several plays. During two of my Hillsdale summer breaks, I travelled with the theater department to the Canadian Stratford Festival.  Shakespeare was central to my liberal arts education.

Confession: all that exposure to the Bard and all of that mentoring did not make me less intimidated by his writing. Maybe I learned too much to just enjoy it? Maybe I didn’t learn enough to see what I thought that I might be seeing? I am not sure where the deficiency is, but I am sure that I have tried to avoid the playwright unless a favorite actor is starring in some new Shakespeare film.

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I am a member of the Read Aloud Revival community. When I knew that Sarah Mackenzie was going to have Ken Ludwig teach a Master Class, I was genuinely excited about having the opportunity to try again. My good friend, Jaime Showmaker, wrote a beautiful article about Ken’s book How To Teach Your Children Shakespeare, and so my pump was primed.

During the Read Aloud Revival Master Class, Sarah invited Ken to come back and mentor us through “Twelfth Night.” It was at that moment that I realized that I was going to have to get serious about reading a play that I have never understood, or else, be left out of the fun. I ordered my Folgers copy, and braced myself for the task.

And then, I remembered that I had purchased the Great Courses Company “How To Read and Understand Shakespeare” course! (Click here to learn more about The Great Courses Company.) I downloaded the course and settled into my laundry folding routine, half expecting to be forcing myself to pay attention. About 10 minutes in, I had little kids dragging their toys over to the t.v., and a bigger kid sketching while he was listening. All of us were entranced.

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Note: I chose the lectures to preview, judiciously. Shakespeare is Shakespeare and the Great Courses Company isn’t designing these courses for little ears. That said, I was impressed by the respect that Professor Connor shows when discussing some of the more delicate subjects. His handling of the mixed up genders in “Twelfth Night” was tasteful and made it clear that there is room for much interpretation on how certain plot lines are portrayed by actors and directors. So, while I don’t want little ears wondering what “erotic” or “homosexual attraction” are, it was tastefully done and very much downplayed. I enjoyed watching more videos when the kids were scarce.

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Professor Connor has a masterful understanding of Shakespeare himself and the tools that Shakespeare used to teach us how to interpret his plays. Connor patiently peels back the layers of interpretation and shows us with quotes, context, and references to previous tools how a story can mean several things and why we can be reasonably certain as to which meaning Shakespeare wants us to grasp.

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The course is laid out in 2 ways: it tells one large sweeping story about Shakespeare’s technique and the tools he employs in his storytelling. It also deals with specific plays in specific ways. In this way, a viewer could watch the 2 lectures on Twelfth Night, more or less, as stand alone, or they could invest 24 lectures in a course through Shakespeare’s canon.

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The course relies on a high level of visual cues. Key points are displayed on graphics, passages are quoted on the screen, and there are many photos used from literature and actual theaters. For families who are on a tight budget, I think that this course would be perfectly fine in the more economical audio format. That said, I do think that this is a course that has a high visual value, and I am glad to be able to see Professor Connor and the visual aids.

In all of my years of studying Shakespeare, I would rank Professor Connor as top notch for inspiring true understanding from his students. His lecture style is friendly, professional, engaging, and articulate. I appreciate his conservative approach to sexual themes. I was pleased to feel myself getting lost in his story telling. This is a course that I am very glad to own, and will certainly use with my children when they are slightly older.

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  1. Jen Dewell says:

    I am embarrassed to say I live only a couple hours from Stratford and have only been to the Festival once (the shaw festival here in Ontario is also wonderful).
    I will have to remedy that!

    1. Sara Masarik says:

      Oh! You lucky ducky! I am so envious!

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