Young & Tragic Love MOOC: Shakespeare

Course: Shakespeare On the Page and in Performance: Young Love & Tragic Love
School/platform: Wellesley (edX)
Instructors: Yu Jin Ko, Diego Arciniegas

As we explore the genius of the plays on the page, we will also study the lives of the plays in performance, from Shakespeare’s own theatre to the stages and screens across the globe today. To help us further, actors will occasionally join our effort to demonstrate ways of bringing the text alive as living theatre.

I’ve enrolled in two prior Shakespeare MOOCs, but this is the first one that didn’t start with the assumption that I knew the plays very well and was ready to discuss various performances I’d seen, or my favorite actors and lines. While I had already read the plays, it was a long time ago and I just don’t remember much beyond the major characters, the general themes, and the broadest strokes of plot. So I was very happy to finally find a course that started with reading the plays, and focused on relatively detailed analysis of language, plot, character, and dramatic elements.

The “Young Love” segment covered Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while “Tragic Love” took on Othello and King Lear; both had an identical introductory unit on Shakespearean theatre, including drama professor Diego Arciniegas’ lectures on interpretation, staging, and delivery. Most of the videos were of classroom lectures and discussions, with some surprises mixed in: several casual student performances of individual scenes, a highly spirited outdoor exploration of the “woods” scene from Midsummer, and Prof. Ko reading passages from Acts 4 and 5 of Lear on the cliffs of Dover. Clips from various performances and movie versions – from Olivier and Ian McKellen to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Baz Luhrmann’s R&J to a Korean dance performance of Midsummer – rounded out the material and allowed illustration of the reasons behind choices made in each production, related to the text.

The lectures were great, filling me in on small details I’d never noticed before as well as fleshing out the major themes in various turns of phrase and providing background from Renaissance studies of various disciplines. I found the discussion of kairos – the fullness of time – for example, to be of particular interest in relation to a concurrent course on Chinese natural philosophy, as well as pertinent to Lear and Gloucester’s personal journeys. Discussion was brisk, particularly in the Young Love course, with questions posed as prompts throughout each week. I generally dislike what I call “forced posting” – a requirement to respond to some question – but between the ideas raised in the lectures and the nature of the prompts, it worked out better than usual here. Beyond the required posts, a series of simple multiple choice question made up most of the graded material.

I was very happy with these two courses and greatly expanded my understanding of these four plays, but I admit, I’m probably weaker than most English majors in Shakespeare; for those who’ve spent a lot more time than I have studying these plays already, it might be too basic a course. I, however, appreciated the solid foundational material, and can recommend it as such.

MOOC season: Hamlet

Is it possible to MOOC yourself to death? I may have an answer to that question in the next three weeks.

I didn’t intend to take eight concurrent classes (which will become nine only nine days from now). They all just looked so good! How can you resist Hamlet, Whitman, Irrational Behavior, corpus Linguistics, Constitutional Law, and, oh, by the way, four math courses, which is just plain ridiculous. True, two of those four are repeats, but I’m repeating them for a reason.

That’s the nice thing about MOOCs: you can retake courses without stigma. And, of course, without cost.

I just finished the six-week Hamlet course taught by Michael Dobson of the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon (for a touch of authenticity), and offered on FutureLearn, the UK’s answer to Coursera. It wasn’t quite the course I was expecting; rather than a discussion of the play as literature, there was an emphasis on the theatre aspect, including detailed history of the various versions of the play and the Elizabethan theatre. In retrospect, I probably should’ve seen that coming. Since I’ve never seen a live performance of Hamlet, and since I’m not entirely up on the details of the play, I was behind the eight-ball from the start; I should’ve put in more preparation, but I expected the course to cover the play itself. Still, it was worthwhile, well-presented, and for people with more interest in theatre than literature, I’d highly recommend it.

I’m quite impressed with the FutureLearn platform. While there are a few additions I’d like to see to the communicative aspect, in my opinion they’re miles ahead of EdX, where I continue to struggle to find my own comments, let alone another person.

Since I’ll be in a serious time crunch over the next three or four weeks, I’m going to temporarily cut back my posting schedule to a Pushcart poem, and – maybe – one prose piece. I could drop some of the courses I’m taking, I suppose, and take them later, but I’m enjoying them; even the ones I have quibbles about are worthwhile, and later on there will be other courses I’ll want to take (I’ve already got four scheduled for September).

I want to keep better track of my impressions by blogging about the courses, so I’ll be back with more details as each ends. If I survive.

Sunday with Zin: Naked Shakespeare

Hello I am Zin and on February 1 Shakespeare went Naked! And I watched!

Naked Shakespeare is a performing arts group in southern Maine that performs Shakespearean sonnets and brief scenes from his plays in everyday places like taverns and summer fairs without costumes or lights or scenery or even a stage! They just show up and speak! It is pretty remarkable! On February 1 as part of the First Friday festivities here in Portland they took over the Atrium of the library for a performance. It was quite strange because the Atrium is very small, it is maybe 30 feet wide, and people were sitting on the floor and wee littles were crying and people were coming and going and the actors never got distracted! It was amazing to watch them keep focused on what they were doing!

They had a special challenge because they were in the middle of the floor with nothing but a bench and people were lined up against both walls and the ends, so it was like they were in the middle of a rectangle of audience! They had to keep moving around so everyone had a chance to hear and see them up close and all of this was improvised which I think is pretty impressive when they are also performing Shakespeare!

Because of the time of year the theme was “Will You Be Mine” and the works were about love of all kinds from the love sonnets and the comedies to of all things King Lear and Cordelia! That was my favorite because the actors were really good! When Lear entered I think the whole audience was worried the actor was having some kind of medical problem he was so convincing!

I took a video recording of the Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state…. Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising…”), a short scene from Measure for Measure, and a longer passage from Troilus and Cressida which I have never read or seen before. Because the actors were sometimes two feet away and sometimes fifty feet away the sound is a bit odd but it gives an idea of the very un-Shakespearean setting! At least un-Shakespearean as we are used to seeing Shakespeare performed now.

Good words and good performers work anywhere!