Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

William Shakespeare didn't go to college. If he time-traveled like Dr. Who, he would be stunned to find his words on a university syllabus. However, he would not be surprised at the way we will be using those words in this class, because the study of rhetoric was essential to all education in his day. At Oxford, William Gager argued that drama allowed undergraduates "to try their voices and confirm their memories, and to frame their speech and conform it to convenient action": in other words, drama was useful. Shakespeare's fellow playwright Thomas Heywood similarly recalled:

In the time of my residence in Cambridge, I have seen Tragedies, Comedies, Histories, Pastorals and Shows, publicly acted…: this is held necessary for the emboldening of their Junior scholars, to arm them with audacity, against they come to be employed in any public exercise, as in the reading of Dialectic, Rhetoric, Ethic, Mathematic, the Physic, or Metaphysic Lectures.

Such practice made a student able to "frame a sufficient argument to prove his questions, or defend any axioma, to distinguish of any Dilemma and be able to moderate in any Argumentation whatsoever" (Apology for Actors, 1612). In this class, we will use Shakespeare's own words to arm you "with audacity" and a similar ability to make logical, compelling arguments, in speech and in writing.

Shakespeare used his ears and eyes to learn the craft of telling stories to the public in the popular form of theater. He also published two long narrative poems, which he dedicated to an aristocrat, and wrote sonnets to share "among his private friends" (so wrote Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia, 1598). Varying his style to suit different audiences and occasions, and borrowing copiously from what he read, Shakespeare nevertheless found a voice all his own–so much so that his words are now, as his fellow playwright Ben Jonson foretold, "not of an age, but for all time." Reading, listening, analyzing, appreciating, criticizing, remembering: we will engage with these words in many ways, and will see how words can become ideas, habits of thought, indicators of emotion, and a means to transform the world.

Course Objectives

This class has five "super-objectives":

  1. To encourage a clearer understanding of your own personal skills and creativity, increasing your self-awareness and the accuracy of your self-analysis, so that you can sustain a realistic sense of confidence and are better positioned to achieve whatever goals you set for yourself.
  2. To provide the tools and nurture your ability to read challenging material and then express your perceptions in oral and written forms clearly and accurately.
  3. To improve and refine your abilities to express and communicate ideas, feelings, and arguments effectively and persuasively, so that you can know what you believe and can work and lead as a member of a team or community.
  4. To increase your consciousness of ethical, historical, political and artistic issues both in what you read, hear and see and in how you communicate, so that you can function more sensitively, intelligently and effectively in the world.
  5. To encourage your understanding and enjoyment of Shakespearean drama, especially as an occasion for communication across personal, temporal, and cultural boundaries.


Writing With Shakespeare will rely on lively interchange; therefore attendance and full participation are required. This means having read the plays and critical selections carefully and on time, having some specific responses to them that you can share, and being sufficiently alert to join in an animated conversation. In addition to oral discussion, we will also work on oral presentation skills both individually and in groups.

A variety of written assignments will allow you to respond to our topic in different ways. Your initial and final self-assessments will allow you to reflect upon your own skills, knowledge, and learning in relationship to the subject's objectives. Later essays will help you develop your skills in research, analysis, and argumentation.

Written work should be typed or word-processed (double-spaced, with standard margins and font sizes). Assignments include a minimum of 20 pages of writing, including 5 analytic assignments; revision and resubmission of several assignments and an oral component spelled out below, including oral recitation and presentation.


Class participation, including reading, attendance, conferences, oral recitation and discussion 20%
Group research, performance, and class leadership 10%
Self-assessments 10%
Four short essays (2-4 pp) 30%
Long essay (8 pages) 20%
Other written exercises, including group annotated bibliography, peer critique, etc. 10%

MIT Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else's work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student's own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.