My fascination with Shakespeare was piqued a few years ago having read Bill Bryson’s excellent biography, Shakespeare. Although my bookcase certainly became home to a number of books about the Bard following this, my general knowledge of his life and works remained sadly lacking. When I came across FutureLearn, an excellent online resource offering courses run by a variety of Universities covering a wide variety of topics, and spied a Shakespeare one among their offerings, I couldn’t resist.
The knowledgeable, enthusiastic Jonathan Bates, renowned Shakespeare scholar, and Provost of Worcester College led us through ten weeks of material, covering eight plays, and focusing on a particular theme each week. Not only were we in the very capable hands of Professor Bates, but he also had working alongside him Jennifer Waghorn who studiously read through our discussions and picked out the most common and interesting questions to ask Jonathan in their weekly round up videos.
The video content each week was heavily based around the archival collections held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which was a brilliant opportunity to see some of their treasures. There were curious items that many of us had never come across before – a money pot used at theatres to collect the pennies of those wishing to watch the plays (a rare item despite their profusion at the time because they had to be smashed to get the money out), a hornbook which would have been used in schools to teach basic vocabulary, the Lord’s Prayer, and often the alphabet, and a whole host of other fascinating objects that I’m sure most of us would never otherwise have had opportunity to see. I was particularly pleased by the constant references to, and use of the archive as a reminder to how important archives are to the understanding of history.
We learnt about the ways theatre ran in the time of Shakespeare, the speed at which playwrights were expected to compose their plays, and the actors learn them, and the ways in which the expected audience influenced the themes of the plays. I was interested in the different sources Shakespeare would have used for inspiration and historical detail, and how Shakespeare often used very similar wording but made it far more poetic. It was also intriguing to see what facts and portrayals he chose to change.
Not only did we learn about the plays themselves and the theatres they were performed in, but we also explored wider issues that were present in the plays, real life events that often had a deep impact on the plays. I think my favourite week was probably that covering Macbeth as we delved in to the dark world of magic, madness, and medicine.
The final week was also interesting as we looked not at a specific play but at how Shakespeare has become as important as he is. Learning how much Shakespeare has inspired artists throughout the centuries that have passed since he himself was writing truly brought home how timeless his work is, and how everybody can get something different out of it. This didn’t always mean creating new work inspired by him, however, as his plays have been adapted and changed to fit contemporary expectations and ideals, especially during the eighteenth century. We were also encouraged to think about adaptations and works of art inspired by Shakespeare that particularly resonate with us, and think about how they capture the essence of the original.
This course provided an enriching ten weeks, and the enthusiasm of Jonathan and Jennifer was always encouraging and made the course hugely enjoyable. I feel I now have a greater respect for the works of Shakespeare, and a deeper appreciation of how, 450 years later, they are still integral to so much creative output.
If you missed out on the course this time round, I believe they’re running it again later in the year. Keep an eye on the FutureLearn website if you want to join in, and while you’re there you might just find something else that takes your fancy (I’m on course three so far, I think I’m addicted!).