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Within This Digital O – A Review Of The Shakespeare After All Course From Harvard Extension

Shakespeare After All: The Late Plays from Professor Marjorie Garber is the second course I’ve taken from the Harvard Extension site, the first being Professor Charles Maier’s World War and Society in the Twentieth Century.

Shakespeare After All Globe Theatre Harvard Extension

Andrea Vail via Flickr

In a review of that course, I posed some questions regarding the connection between Harvard Extension and edX, including whether the existence of another Extension School course (Greek Hero) on both the Extension School and edX sites meant we would eventually see all of these Open Learning courses eventually get the full edX treatment.

Since writing that review, I’ve learned that Harvard Extension has provided the talent pool for different experiments in online/mass education, which makes sense given the widespread appeal of courses offered via Extension programs and the experience Extension teachers have in front of the microphone. And while it looks like the Extension course China: Transitions and Transformations will be offered via the edX site this fall, the online version of Garber’s Late Shakespeare is only available as a set of recorded lectures.

Specifically, the course consists of 13 two-hour lectures during which Professor Garber covers eleven plays including “biggies” like Othello, Macbeth and King Lear (the earlier Hamlet apparently just missed the cutoff date), plays Garber describes as representing Shakespeare at the height of his powers (Anthony and Cleopatra, Winter’s Tale) and several plays students (including me) will likely have had less exposure to (such as Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, Pericles and my new current favorite Coriolanus).

And before getting into the virtues of giving each of these plays equal coverage, I need to point out that this course, more than any other lecture-based class I’ve taken, demonstrates why the distinction some make between “real” MOOCs and other forms of free learning is so artificial.

For beyond the lectures, the reading material associated with this course was obvious: the plays themselves and Garber’s own book Shakespeare After All (which provides individual essays for each play covered in the course) – all of which are available free from any decent public library. And if you’re planning to take this course as I did, I recommend a learning sequence that involves first reading the chapter associated with a particular play in Garber’s book, then watching the play on video while reading along with the original text, and then finishing up by listening to the course lecture.

One of the things I learned by studying a set of plays written during a distinct chronological period (the final years of Shakespeare’s career, most of which coincided with the reign of King James) was how much public perception of what constitutes the Bard’s “great works” has changed over time. For instance, plays which don’t get performed much today (such as Pericles and Cymbeline) were great crowd pleasers when they first appeared and continued to rank as public favorites for centuries afterwards. And over those centuries, different works ended up being embraced by scholars as the Bard’s “finest masterpieces.”  So today’s top ranking of tragedies (notably Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear) may represent contemporary sensibilities more than historic consensus.

For, as Garber points out, there are always three time periods to associate with any play: the period in which the play was set, the time in which it was written and first produced, and the time in which the audience for the play lives. For example, unlike in Shakespeare’s day, today’s performances feature real actresses (not men in drag) playing women’s roles. Which makes a contemporary feminist critique of works that include some of literature’s most powerful female heroines and villainesses (such as Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra and the Coriolanus’ kick-ass mom Volumnia) particularly apt.

As with another favorite lit class (Greek Hero), the great sin for Shakespeare analysis is reading into the plays vs. reading out of them. And while Garber is open to any and all questions that make up the discussion consuming half of each class (with the discussants miked – removing one of the big bugaboos I have about recorded lectures which often include long silences while an audience member asks his or her question), judging a 16th-17th century playwright (and his audience) by 21st century standards usually earned a polite but firm correction from the professor.

For in so many ways, Shakespeare’s characters created the archetypes that define who we are (or at least give us a language to understand ourselves). For instance, modern anti-imperialist readings of The Tempest are only possible because Shakespeare poured enough humanity into his “noble savage” creation of Caliban to give contemporary actors and directors rich material with which to work.

Similarly, The Merchant of Venice (not covered in this course, and treated as a comedy in its time) allowed the anti-Semitic stereotype of Shylock to evolve into a probing mirror on society with the insightful question of “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” ringing out to modern audiences as the raging voice of the persecuted.

While I’ll admit that I found the “Incest Riddle” that triggers the wanderings and woes of Pericles less charming or profound than the riddling words of Macbeth’s weird sisters, I should also note that exposure to “fairy tale” plays like Pericles and Winter’s Tale highlighted a type of magic you don’t find in what are today considered the Bard’s more mainstream tragedies and comedies.

But this revelation, along with exposure to the volcano which was Coriolanus, was just one more case of how a powerfully taught course can provide even a veteran Shakespeare reader and viewer with new insights into history’s greatest writer and the world he created (which all of us inhabit).


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.

Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at