English 617Studies in Shakespeare: Female Rage from Medea to Lady Macbeth

Dr. Michael Bryson
Sierra Tower 832

Medea killing her children


COURSE DESCRIPTION: This course will emphasize the influence of classical tragedy on Shakespearean tragedy. It will especially focus on the way Euripides, Aeschylus, and Seneca focus on female grief and loss and the desire for revenge, and the ways in which that emphasis manifests in Shakespeare's portrayals of multiple female characters and one male character experiencing grief and loss and the desire for revenge. This course is going to try to replicate the conditions of scholarly work: reading a great deal of material in what seems like too-short a time, and then doing research into secondary and supporting materials before writing (and sometimes while writing) an academic essay that makes a focused and original argument. Jump into the reading as soon as possible, and try not to fall behind.

This version of the course is conducted wholly online, in a hybrid mode (synchronous for the first 8 weeks, then asynchronous for the final 8 weeks). All “office hours” will be held virtually, via email (unless we have made arrangements for a one-on-one Zoom meeting). In other words, there is no set time to come in and ask me questions, but questions are encouraged, and I will get back to you with the best answers I have within 24 hours (and usually sooner). If you are having difficulty with the material, or the research process, tell me. I’ll do the best I can to help you work through the material, or answer any research questions you have.

Active and engaged participation; summary and analysis of three scholarly essays; final essay.


Provided with each course module, but print copies can be ordered through the campus bookstore, or elsewhere online using the ISBN numbers to locate the editions referred to (for all but the Ovid and Virgil texts, which I am sourcing from Anthony Kline's site Poetry in Translation). For the Greek and Latin works listed below—Aeschylus, Euripides, Seneca, Virgil, and Ovid—the exact edition listed is necessary; for Shakespeare, other editions will suffice (I have the RSC listed below, but the campus bookstore will order the Pelican edition, which I use most often; the Oxford and Norton editions are excellent as well, as is the Riverside and the Bevington):

  • The Complete Aeschylus: Volume I: The Oresteia
    ISBN-13: 978-0199753635
  • Euripides I
    ISBN-13: 978-0226308807
  • Euripides II
    ISBN-13: 978-0226308784
  • Euripides V
    ISBN-13: 978-0226308982
  • Seneca: The Complete Tragedies, Volume 1: Medea, The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, The Trojan Women, Octavia
    ISBN-13: 978-0226748238
  • Ovid, Heroides
    No ISBN—Open Access Online Translation
  • Seneca: Anger, Mercy, and Revenge
    ISBN-13: 978-0226748429
  • The RSC Shakespeare: The Complete Works
    ISBN-13: 978-0230200951
  • The Complete Pelican Shakespeare
    ISBN-13: 978-0141000589
    or any other standard edition of the collected works (online texts are available as well)
  • Virgil, Aeneid (Book 4)
    No ISBN—Open Access Online Translation


Summary and Analysis of Three Scholarly Essays: In the range of 5 pages, (1500 words): all three essays must have a clear relation to the subject matter of this course—treat these as an opportunity to get a head start on research for the final paper. #1 will be due week 3, #2 week 5, and #3 week 7. These will, in total, account for 30% of the course grade.

Abstract of Argument for Final Paper + Outline: A one-paragraph description of the argument your final paper will pursue, plus a detailed outline of each section and the points/subpoints that will be made therein. For papers of this length, it is helpful to think of them as mini-books, with various sections of the argument separated by subheadings in the style of mini-chapters. Your outline will present a summation of your research question and thesis, a point-by-point preview of the various stops your argument is going to make, and a working bibliography that represents the beginning, not the end of your research. See here for an example. This will account for 20% of the course grade, and will be due by week 12.

Final: In the range of 25 pages (7500 words), this will be an essay on 1 of 2 topics:

1) How Shakespeare uses/abuses/transforms/challenges/reproduces the classical portrayals of female grief, anger, revenge, and desire for power and/or self-determination.

2) How a later author/work engages with both the Shakespearean and Classical portrayals of female grief, anger, revenge, and desire for power and/or self-determination.

This essay will be a deeply-researched argument paper that makes use of primary and secondary sources. Print is an excellent thing, and books are still the coin of the realm in the highest reaches of humanities scholarship (though during these times it will be helpful to familiarize yourself with the uses of Google Books, Archive.org, the HathiTrust Digital Library, and the Memory of the World Library), but journal articles can sometimes be more immediate in terms of what is going on at the moment. Have a look at the CSUN library's page outlining electronic resources for English (and be aware of the existence of SCI-HUB). Quotations from the works you deal with—and quotations from secondary sources—should follow MLA or (preferably) Chicago format. Pro tip: despite the obsession of many English professors with MLA format, most humanities-oriented publishers in the USA use Chicago, and very few publishers of any kind outside the USA use MLA. Just so you know...

Also, a similar pro tip regarding the use of older (beyond about the last 10-20 years) scholarly resources. Despite the advice one sometimes encounters not to make use of such resources (and curiously, this is often from people who do not publish much, if at all), they are often of enormous value, especially for understanding what the history of a discourse has been, which issues keep appearing, which arguments keep getting made. A familiarity with such sources is like the foundation to a house—see the familiar parable about building a house on sand, as well as the Jimi Hendrix song based loosely thereon.  In doing the research for your final paper, I strongly encourage you to look at a variety of sources, both in terms of genre/format (books, articles, etc.) and time period.

The final will account for 50% of the course grade, and will be due by the end of finals week.


Part One (Meetings via Zoom on Tuesdays at 4 PM PST)

Week 1 (8/25) Introductions: discussion of Shakespeare's education and relation to Greek and Roman poetry and drama—read selections from T.W. Baldwin, Colin Burrow, and Tanya Pollard.
Week 2 (9/1) Euripides, MedeaHecuba, and Iphigenia at Aulis
Week 3 (9/8) Aeschylus, The Oresteia
Week 4 (9/15) William Shakespeare, King John, Hamlet
Week 5 (9/22) William Shakespeare, Henry VI, parts 1 and 2
Week 6 (9/29) William Shakespeare, Henry VI part 3, and Richard III
Week 7 (10/6) William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth
Week 8 (10/13) Seneca, Anger, Mercy, and Revenge (specifically the essay "On Anger"), and Medea; Virgil, Aeneid, Book 4; Ovid, Heroides #7 (Dido to Aeneas) and #12 (Medea to Jason)

Part Two (Research and Writing)

Weeks 9-16 (10/20-12/8) Independent Research and Writing (consultations with me when needed/desired)

The Humanist (Re)Turn 
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