English R1A

Reading and Composition: Theater and Magic in Shakespeare’s England

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Spring 2017 Scott, Mark JR
MWF 12-1 211 Dwinelle

Book List

Jonson, Ben: The Alchemist (New Mermaids edition); Marlowe, Christopher: Doctor Faustus: A- and B- Texts (Revels edition); Shakespeare, William: A Midsummer Night's Dream (Arden edition); Shakespeare, William: The Tempest (Arden edition)

Other Readings and Media

A course reader will also be provided containing additional primary and secondary texts (including excerpts from Renaissance tracts about witchcraft and modern critical readings of the plays).


Like our 16th- and 17th-century ancestors, in the 21st century we remain fascinated by the supernatural. Yet while witches, wizards, and werewolves abound in the movies and TV shows of today, we have (for the most part) lost any belief in such magical phenomena. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, however, magic was still very much a ‘real’ fact of human existence. Witchcraft was a hot topic in the popular media of the day, the focus of an increasing number of religious tracts, philosophical treatises, and popular pamphlets as well as plays. This course examines early modern lore about witchcraft, demons, and magic in relation to drama written by three of Renaissance England’s greatest playwrights: William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson. From the devilish pact made by Doctor Faustus with Lucifer to the (apparently) more benign regime of the wizard Prospero on a magical island, their plays contain diverse portrayals of the supernatural, sometimes funny, sometimes frightening. But as well as offering depictions of magic in their plays, the writers we will study also seek to present the theater itself as a form of magic. What might it mean to conceive of theater in this way? What are the potential dangers of aligning an art form with such an ambiguous phenomenon as magic (which could be thought of alternately as heinously sinful or as the greatest expression of human potential)?

The broader academic purpose of this course is to develop your critical reading and writing skills, whatever your major might be. You will write and revise three papers of increasing length over the semester, and work with peers to improve your writing and critical thinking.

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