The Mirror and the Rose: Shakespeare’s Poetry in Context

Sophomore and above—Fall

The reading for this course is the poetry that Shakespeare wrote apart from the stage: his sonnets, his three narrative poems (Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and A Lover’s Complaint), and his strange lyric commonly known as “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Shakespeare was fully immersed in his culture, with strong roots in the busy commercial theatre of 16th- and 17th-century London, friends among many other writers of the period, and perhaps some distant acquaintance with figures at court. Just as Shakespeare’s plays show a knowledge of current trends in writing, so do his poems. And as in everything he wrote, Shakespeare was never a mere copycat. He transformed every genre or style to which he turned his attention, stretching its possibilities. To provide context for Shakespeare’s poems, we’ll also read several other poets: the Italian Petrarch (1304-74), grandfather of the love sonnet, as well as Sidney, Spenser, and Marlowe, three slightly earlier contemporaries of Shakespeare. Discussion will include technical issues of meter and form, along with the emotional, intellectual, and cultural work that the poems do. The course is meant for anyone who’s keen on Shakespeare or poetry of any period, or both. Students may do conference work in obviously related fields—Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers, for example, or a wide range of English poetry—or in an area completely unrelated to the course if it fits their needs.