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Department of English

Choate Rosemary Hall

Wallingford, Connecticut

English 437

Shakespeare and the Death of Kings

Spring 2014 term

Hypertext Course Syllabus

Goals of the Course
Course Policies and Grading
Texts and Course Materials
Key Dates
Program and Workload
Group Performance Projects

Schedule of Meetings and Assignments

Rev. Dr. Ned Gallagher
Memorial House #114, 697-2340
Johnson Athletic Center #105, 697-2418
preferred e-mail:

"Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings."

- William Shakespeare, Richard II, (III.ii.155-6)

Goals of English 437

The course will explore a handful of William Shakespeare’s history plays: we will read five works fairly carefully and another one rather quickly and also study brief excerpts from several others. These plays have endured for over four hundred years because they offer a timeless examination of the structures of power and because they contain some of the Bard’s best poetry and most vivid characters. The primary focus of our course will be literary, paying careful attention to matters of language, but our study also will be informed by an understanding of the relevant historical background—principally the Plantagenet kings and the Wars of the Roses—as well as appropriate theatrical considerations (i.e., stagecraft, directorial choices, etc.). Most of the term will be spent focusing on Shakespeare’s portrayal of the historical events between 1398 and 1485, beginning with Henry IV's usurpation of the English crown, covering his son's conquest of France, and ending at the conclusion of the War Of The Roses, as Henry Tudor assumes the throne, uniting the feuding houses of Lancaster and York.

Dates Of Action
Depicted In Play


Richard II
Henry IV, Part One
Henry IV, Part Two
Henry V
Wars Of The Roses
Henry VI, Part One
Henry VI, Part Two
Henry VI, Part Three
Richard III

We will begin our formal textual study with the Henriad tetralogy (focusing only on a couple of key scenes in Henry IV, Part Two). As we shift our attention to Richard III, we'll spend a day summarizing important plot and thematic elements in the three Henry VI plays so you can better appreciate what's going on in Richard III. And we will conclude with King Lear (which is usually grouped among Shakespeare’s tragedies, but was first presented in quarto form as a history).

The course will examine three historical dimensions of the plays and their production: the period in which the action was set; the Elizabethan/Jacobean era in which the works were first presented, and the modern context in which we encounter these plays and their themes anew. We will discuss the ways in which the recurring patterns in these plays--e.g., heroism, performance for political advantage, the relationship between leader and citizen--remain thoroughly relevant in our times. We will examine, for instance, how the hero-king’s portrayal of heroism is deeply rooted in characterizations of his enemies. It is our hope that through the work of this course, we all will deepen our facility with and sensitivity toward Shakespeare’s art, thought, and language, and also hone our skills of analysis and interpretation by connecting historical drama and subject matter to our own personal lives and the collective lives of our culture and society.

Along the way, we hope to develop the general intellectual skills of:

I also plan to tap your collaboration skills and your creative juices as an actor, director, filmmaker, or designer as you will have the chance to stage a scene from Shakespeare, either live or on video, the final week of the term.

The course is designed with these aims in mind to be a coöperative learning experience in appreciating and understanding the rich tapestry of Shakespearean drama. Needless to say, no such understanding can be taught by someone else; it can only be learned for oneself. I expect to learn more about Shakespeare alongside you, and thus be a fellow explorer this term. I expect hard work and commitment, but also hope that these will be applied in personally meaningful ways. I will do my best to keep the class open enough for each of you to pursue his or her own pathways into the plays.


"We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart."
- Hamlet, I.ii.175

Course Policies and Grading

A summary of course policies and grading standards can be found online by clicking here.

The major assessments this term will be four 2-3 page critical essays, a midterm examination, and the group presentation of a scene. I also expect regular and substantive contributions in class from each of you. There will be regular and unannounced reading quizzes, designed to keep you on top of the assignments. There also will be a series of opportunities to write for extra credit 1-2 page reviews of Shakespeare-themed films related to the plays we are studying.

English Department Policy on the Use of Outside Sources

A student is not permitted to utilize information from secondary sources in English classes at Choate without the explicit permission of his or her teacher. These sources, whether in hard copy or on the Web, are off limits, as I feel that learning--and, at times, struggling--to derive the meaning of a primary text on one's own is an essential mission of our department. This policy does not prohibit students from consulting online dictionaries or from accessing information about allusions and other cultural or historical references which might appear in a text; it does prohibit accessing material which in any way summarizes or interprets the primary text or the works of the author being studied. As mentioned above, an individual teacher may have occasion to encourage or to direct students to refer to particular sources. In such instances, students are obligated to cite properly any information or quotations appearing in their own written work.

Also, along these lines, I caution you to be very wary of depending on film adaptations as substitutes for reading the texts of the plays. Most cinematic renditions are heavily edited versions of the original plays and, moreover, will deprive you of the use of your own imagination in encountering these plays for the first time. I will use clips from films in class--often comparatively, when possible--and encourage you to view the films for the extra credit assignments, but you should watch these only AFTER you have completed the assigned reading.

Texts and Course Materials

This text for the course--available at the school bookstore--should be purchased by all students immediately:

Signet editions are preferred; they are relatively cheap and contain useful source material in the appendices. Occasionally I will ask you to read supplementary materials for the course, as well--mostly available in digital form.


This course will be orthodox in its presentation: in general, you'll read something before each meeting, and in class we'll discuss what you've read--what I call "Socratic discussion." I have worked hard to keep the pace of assignments manageable. Some nights you will have more on your plate than others, but given the variable length of acts in these plays, your homework should balance out as a challenging but very manageable load.

The prospect of reading Shakespeare can be daunting if you are not used to it. The assignments early in the term likely will take a little longer, but you'll find you will get used to the verse and the patterns of the Elizabethan language, so stick with it.

Since this is a spring tem course taught primarily to sixth formers, it bears mentioning that your teacher firmly rejects the concept of "senior spring." The deal is this: you give us your best efforts and I'll give you mine.

Group Performance Projects

This term the students in the class will be divided into "acting troupes" named after Shakepeare's own companies: The Lord Chamberlain's Men and The King's Men (though unlike what happened on the Elizabethan stage, our companies will include females!). Each company will make a ten-minute presentation to the rest of the class, a collaborative interpretation of how a particular scene (or part of a scene, or a conflation of two or more scenes) in a selected play should be staged. The presentation may be either a live theatrical experience or a videotaped, edited rendition. Details are available here.

Schedule of Meetings and Assignments

What follows is what we'll try to cover during the term. It may be adjusted from time to time for any number of reasons. The homework for the next class is always the next assignment unless you are told differently. You'll find each entry on the schedule below contains some instructive questions and ideas you should consider in preparing for class; get into the habit reading the syllabus carefully each night as you begin your homework.

1. "Stand And Unfold Yourself."

In class, we'll meet each other, introduce the subject matter, and discuss the expectations of the course.

2. "The Hollow Crown" I.

Read Richard II, Act I, scenes i and ii. Pay close attention to the trial scene that opens the play; to what extent are the characters playing roles in I:i? What are the claims Bolingbroke and Mobray bring against each other? What do you think of Richard's handling of the dispute? Consider your first impressions of Richard as a monarch: is he a good king? Who is John of Gaunt in relation to Richard? to the Duchess of Gloucester? What is Gaunt's political philsophy? What insights does the Duchess offer?

3. "The Hollow Crown" II.

Read Richard II, Act I, scenes iii and iv. Why does Richard abruptly stop the duel between Mowbray and Bolingbroke in I:ii? Why does he banish Mowbray for life but not Bolingbroke? What does the king's speech in I.iv.20-36 suggest about Bolingbroke? What is Richard saying in the final lines of I:iv?

4. "The Hollow Crown" III.

Read Richard II, Act II. Before you begin reading, look up the literary term anaphora and watch for its extended use in one of the play's most memorable passages. This play is written entirely in verse, and is often described as the most lyrical of Shakespeare's history plays. How does the play's lyricism shape it thematically and dramatically? What metaphor is John of Gaunt invoking in his description of England in II.i? Pay attention to the last exchange between Gaunt and the king. After Gaunt's death, York attempts to apprise Richard of his errors. What are these mistakes? How do you assess Richard’s response to York? What is motivating the rebels in II.iii? Who are the "caterpillars of the commonwealth," according to Bolinbroke, and what does this reference mean? What do Richard's allies have to say in II.ii and II.iv about what is transpiring?

5. "The Hollow Crown" IV.

Read Richard II, Act III. In III.i Bolingbroke executes Bushy and Green; what authority has he to do this and what does this act suggest about Bolingbroke's sense of himself as a subject in relation to the king? Pay careful attention to Richard's speeches in III.ii (from which we take the title of our course); what metaphors does he invoke in describing himself? Is Richard a pragmatic ruler? Why has the speech in lines 142–182 polarized audiences and critics? Does the playwright intend the king to be a sympathetic figure in this scene? How would you describe his political ideology? What is the function of the gardener scene in III.iv? How does it extend the metaphor employed by John of Gaunt earlier in the play?

6. "The Hollow Crown" V.

Read Richard II, Act IV. What kind of character is Bolingbroke? What kinds of changes does he undergo during the course of the play? How would you describe Bolingbroke's political ideology? Compare Richard and Bolingbroke in the deposition scene (IV.i). Why was this scene not printed until the fourth edition of the folio? What does Richard attempt or accomplish here, both in regard to Bolingbroke and in terms of our response to him? Is Richard in control? In distress? How does Bolingbroke respond? What is York's role here? Carlisle's? How might you see this scene as a piece of theater? How would you direct it? What is the business with the mirror all about?

7. "The Hollow Crown" VI.

Read Richard II, Act V. How is the theatrical metaphor made explicit in V.ii? In what ways does Richard arrive at a greater measure of self-knowledge in V.i and V.v? Does he lament his failure to move against Bolingbroke? Is he satisfied with a kingdom of the mind? Has your sympathy for and understanding of Richard grown since IV.i? Think about Richard's farewell to his queen vis-a-vis Gaunt's death. What is the position of Bolingbroke--at this point King Henry IV--at the very end of the play? To what extent does Shakespeare employ foreshadowing?

8. Fathers And Sons I.

Read Henry IV Part One, Act I. Pay attention to King Henry's description of his son in the opening scene of the play. What obvious contrasts are established from the outset here? What is your initial to Prince Hal's surrogate father? How does the young prince explain his beahvior? Is this a credible account?

9. Fathers And Sons II.

Read Henry IV Part One, Act II. What is the dramatic function of the Gadshill robbery in II.ii? Falstaff pretends to be Hal's father in the Boar's Head Tavern in II.iv, then the roles are reversed. What is the significance of this scene? What is the effect of Hal's (mock?) rejection of Falstaff?

10. Fathers And Sons III.

Read Henry IV Part One, Act III. Compare the king's admonishment in III.ii.29–54 with Prince Hal's speech in I.iii.199–221. Note what Hal says about honor in III.ii.134–64; how does this compare to Hotspur’s speech in I.iii.162–91? Examine Hal's exchange with his father in III.ii carefully; have you ever been in a situation like this?

11. Fathers And Sons IV.

Read Henry IV Part One, Act IV. What is the essential irony at the heart of the this play's plot?

12. Fathers And Sons VI.

Read Henry IV Part One, Act V. Pay attention to Falstaff's thoughts on the topic of honor (V.ii.131-42); how does his attitude compare to that of other major characters in the play? Why have some critics described Falstaff as Shakespeare's greatest creation? Is he a comedian or comic character (that is, a perpetrator or victim of humor)? At the moment of his great triumph, does Hal come round to the virtues of chivalric honor associated with Hotspur, or does he do something different?

13. Fathers And Sons VI.

Read Henry IV Part Two, Acts I and II. Note the imagery linking the body politic with the king's physical body. We saw some of this in Richard II. Is there any evidence to support the thought that Bolingbroke's usurpations have had a negative legacy on the kingdom? Has the success Prince Hal experienced at the end of Henry IV Part One changed him in any obvious ways?

14. Paper #1 Due.

Instructions and topics for your essay are online here.

15. Fathers And Sons VII.

Read Henry IV Part Two, Acts III and IV. What is the king's attitude toward sleep in III.i? Does this remind you of any other Shakespearean scenes or characters? Read carefully the scene in IV.v in which Hal takes the crown from his father's deathbed; what is going on here? How does this scene contrast with the deposition scene in Richard III?

16. Fathers And Sons VIII.

Read Henry IV Part Two, Act V. How does Hal's attitude toward the Chief Justice change? What is the significance of this shift? What do you think about Falstaff's final encounter with the newly crowned king? Is this an example of good kingship or bad? Is Henry V being cruel to his old friend Falstaff?

16A. Cinematic Shakespeare II: Extra Credit Assignment #1. [optional]

Watch and write a review of either Orson Welles' 1965 film Chimes At Midnight or Gus Van Sant's 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. Copies of the Welles film are hard to find, but I own a DVD you can borrow. Chimes At Midnight focuses on the character of Falstaff and draws from material in five different Shakespeare plays (but principally both parts of Henry IV). The Van Sant film loosely sets Prince Hal's story in Portland, Oregon, circa 1990 (and I'll caution you in advance that aspects of the film may offend the sensibilities of the more prudish among you). Your analysis may be submitted for credit any time through April 25 (the day we return from Long Weekend break).

17. Mid-Term Examination.

Royal Arms Of England18. "This Star Of England" I.

Read Henry V, Act I. What is the dramatic function of the Chorus? Why do you think Shakespeare uses a Chorus in this play and not other plays? What is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s motive for convincing the king to go to war with France? Why has "Hal" become "Harry"?

19. "This Star Of England" II.

Read Henry V, Act II. Do we view Harry differently because he is no longer in the company of Falstaff? Why was it necessary for Falstaff to die in this play? What does Falstaff's voice contribute to the earlier plays that is no longer present in this play? How does his death relate to Henry’s treatment of the traitors, the death of Bardolph, the behavior of Pistol, and the disquisition of Fluellen on the subject of Alexander? At the end of II.ii, Henry says, "No king of England if not king of France." What does he mean by this statement?

20. "This Star Of England" III.

Read Henry V, Act III. What kind of king is Henry V? Is he a compassionate and merciful Christian monarch, or a ruthless and cunning Machiavellian prince? Is it possible for Harry to possess both sets of characteristics? Although he goes to great lengths to distance himself from Falstaff and his friends at the Boar's Head Tavern at the end of Henry IV, Part Two, has Harry also learned something from his Eastcheap friends that shapes his political decisions?

21. "This Star Of England" IV.

Read Henry V, Act IV. This play is sometimes staged as a patriotic anthem of British statehood, and it is sometimes staged as an anti-heroic critique of war. What is the text's attitude toward war? How is warfare depicted within?

22. "This Star Of England" V.

Read Henry V, Act V. As in a Shakespearean comedy, this play ends with a marriage; what does that suggest?

22A. Cinematic Shakespeare III: Extra Credit Assignment #2. [optional]

Watch and write a review of either Laurence Olivier's 1944 film or Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film of Henry V. (If you have the time and really want to impress, watch both and compare!) Olivier's take on the story is very much a product of wartime England; in fact Winston Churchill encouraged Olivier to make this film to boost morale and the British government provided partial funding. Branagh's version of Henry V kicked off something of a Renaissance in Shakespeare-themed filmmaking in the last two decades, highlighted by a Best Picture Oscar for Shakespeare In Love (1998). Your analysis may be submitted for credit any time through May 9.

23. Interlude: Highlights Of Henry VI.

No assignment other than the completion of paper #2. Use the time to get ahead on your next paper or to work on the extra credit assignment, if you choose to do it. In class, we'll focus on relevant highlights of the Wars Of The Roses cycle (all three parts of Henry VI) to prepare for our study of Richard III.

24. Paper #2 Due.

No class session on Monday, April 29--NG at Phillips Exeter Academy for ESAC Annual Meeting--but your second paper is due at the end of classtime this day. Instructions and topics for your essay are online here.

25. The "Shadow In The Sun" I.

Read Richard III, Act I. The monologue that begins the play is perhaps the most striking opening found in any of Shakespeare's works. Are you attracted to the character of Richard or repulsed by him--or both? Why do you think Lady Anne allows herself to be seduced by Richard in I.ii? Is this believable? Do you, as a reader, want her to be seduced? Why or why not?

26. The "Shadow In The Sun" II.

Read Richard III, Act II. In Henry VI Part Three, Richard proclaims, "I can add colors to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus for advantages" (III.ii.191–2). Where do you see evidence of this in his actions in this play?

boar27. The "Shadow In The Sun" III.

Read Richard III, Act III. Through Act III, an Elizabethan audience might well have cheered on Richard's machinations, believing that his victims entirely deserved their fate. (Remember the curse unleashed by the deposition of God's anointed ruler, Richard II.) Is that concept entirely alien to a modern reading of the play? Note: class will not meet on Monday, May 7--NG away at NEPSAC Executive Board meeting--but keep up with the assignments and we will get caught up in class the following day on Acts III and IV.

28. The "Shadow In The Sun" IV.

Read Richard III, Act IV. In this act, you'll find a couple of key turning points. Read carefully the exchange between Richard and Buckingham in IV.ii: is there the sense that Richard is losing his powers of persuasion? How do you account for Buckingham's actions? Compare IV.iv to I.ii: what is similar about these two scenes? What is different?

29. The "Shadow In The Sun" V.

Read Richard III, Act V.Compare the language and behavior of Richard to Richmond in this act. Is Richmond a worthy adversary to Richard? What do you think Shakespeare is trying to achieve, dramatically and thematically, with Richmond's final speech?

29A. Cinematic Shakespeare IV: Extra Credit Assignment #3. [optional]

Watch and write a review of either Laurence Olivier's 1955 film or Richard Loncraine's 1995 film of Richard III. The latter stars Ian McKellen in the title role. (If you have the time and really want to impress, watch both and compare!) Your analysis may be submitted for credit any time through May 23.

30. Paper #3 Due.

Instructions and topics for your essay are online here.

31. "As Flies To Wanton Boys" I.

Read King Lear, Act I. A careful reading of opening scene is absolutely critical to understanding the characters and the plot; the entire play is set up here. What is your first reaction to each of the major characters in the play? Which ones do you regard positively? Negatively? What are the principal traits on display here? What do you think about the king's behavior? Why did Lear want to retire? Why did he demand public pronouncements of affection from each of his daughters?

32. "As Flies To Wanton Boys" II.

Continued discussion of King Lear, Act I. No new reading assignment; get ahead on the rest of the play, please. Why is the story of King Lear effectively doubled by the Gloucester subplot?

33. "As Flies To Wanton Boys" III.

Read King Lear, Act II. Consider the transformation of characters in the course of the action. How does Shakespeare deepen the contrast between the king's three daughters? Find out what you can about the Elizabethan view of the world and its moral order.

34. "As Flies To Wanton Boys" IV.

Read King Lear, Act III. What do you make on the storm on the heath? Why is this scene usually the most memorable in the play? What is the importance of the "trial" in this act? Do you see any evidence of kindness is this cruel world?

35. Paper #4 Due.

Your final paper is due in class on May 20, the approved "end of term" date for major assessments in English classes. Instructions and topics for your essay are online here.

36. "As Flies To Wanton Boys" V.

Read King Lear, Act IV. Be prepared to explain how and why Edgar behaves as he does toward his father. What is the significance of the scene at Dover? What do you think of Albany at this point in the play? When Gloucester wants to kiss the king's hand, Lear replies, "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality."--what does that signify? What do you make of the reunion of Lear and Cordelia? How do you assess the king's state of mind at the end of the act?

37. "As Flies To Wanton Boys" VI.

Read King Lear, Act V. How does the play fulfill the classical definition of a tragedy? What makes the prison a palace to Lear? Do his actions and/or words show signs of change? Is he sane in the final scene of the play? Is the ending entirely downbeat? Is there a message of hope or redemption here? What does Lear see at the very end of his life?

37A. Cinematic Shakespeare V: Extra Credit Assignment #4. [optional]

Watch and write a review of Akira Kurosawa's 1985 film Ran, which sets the story of King Lear in feudal Japan. Your analysis may be submitted for credit any time through June 2, the last day of exam period.

38. "Is This The Promised End?"

In our final class you will present either the staged or videotaped performances of the scenes you have chosen to dramatize. We will wrap up the course. You will complete end-of-term evaluations in class, so think about any ideas you want to convey to your teachers about the class, the quality of instruction, and your own performance this term. Sadness will begin.


"Our revels now have ended."