Political Shakespeares

Fall 2016 and Winter 2017 quarters

Taught by

Elizabeth Williamson
English literature, theater studies
  • UG

Shakespeare’s scripts are in many ways notoriously conservative. Women dress up as men, only to be railroaded into marriage at the end of the play; Jews and people of color are regularly treated horribly by otherwise likeable characters; servants are routinely sidelined into supporting roles. Early in the 20th century, E.M.W. Tillyard went so far as to argue that the plays were written expressly for the purpose of maintaining the Elizabethan social order. Since the 1960s, however, scholars and theater professionals have been working to draw out the subversive content of the plays, arguing that Shakespeare’s representation of oppressive social norms can be read as a critique of those norms, as well as a prefiguration of our own contemporary political struggles. In the spirit of these subversive readings and productions, we will ask what, if anything, can Shakespeare’s plays DO for us in America of 2016? What kind of work can we make them perform?

This program is designed for students who want to engage in the project of reading literature against the grain. Liking Shakespeare is not a prerequisite. Rather, our focus will be on reimagining the potential of these plays by reading them alongside critical theory texts focused on race, class, gender, and disability, among other targeted identities. Students will read one play per week, along with sample pieces of critical theory, and write essays applying particular theoretical lenses to the plays.

This is not an acting program per se, but students will be expected to participate fully in weekly exercises that will help us better understand the plays as scripts designed for performance. Equally important, students will be expected to engage in thoughtful and occasionally challenging conversations about forms of power and privilege operating in the texts and on our own bodies. The program will be divided equally between creative and analytical modes of thought. Both are integral to the final project, in which students will research, rehearse, and perform sample scenes that express their interpretations of the plays.

Program Details

Fields of Study

cultural studies gender and women's studies literature queer studies theater writing

Preparatory For

advanced or graduate study in literature or other humanities, and careers in theater. This program is ideal for students considering graduate study in the humanities, or for student actors who are interested in creating performances informed by research and analysis.


Fall Open Winter Open

Location and Schedule

Campus Location


Time Offered


Advertised Schedule

First winter class meeting: Monday, January 9th at 10am (Com 308)

Online Learning

Enhanced Online Learning


$25 in winter for theater tickets.


2016-11-17Fall fee cancelled.