Studies in Theory and Criticism: It’s All Greek to Me—Classical and Renaissance Theories of Literature, and Why Shakespeare Breaks the Rules so Often

Dr. Michael Bryson


COURSE DESCRIPTION: The man who was perhaps the first widely-influential Western literary critic rarely wore shoes, but Plato’s Socrates had a number of rules for how literature was supposed to be structured, and what purposes it should serve. From these early roots sprang much of the literary, and literary-critical, tradition to which Shakespeare is so gleefully unfaithful, and to which his contemporary, Ben Jonson was so committed. This course will examine the basic critical/theoretical issues from Gorgias, Plato, Aristotle, and Horace in the classical age to Scaliger, Castelvetro, Sydney, Corneille, Dryden, and Samuel Johnson in the 16th-18th centuries (with a side trip into Romanticism). We will also read selected plays by Shakespeare and Jonson.

EVALUATION METHOD: One short paper (5 pages—due end of week 5); 10 page final paper (due noon Thursday of Finals week).

READING: Theoretical and critical texts will include selections from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, as well as selections from authors not included therein.

Weekly Preview

Week 1
Introductions (Norton 1-11)

Week 2
Day 1) Gorgias (Norton 29-33)
Day 2) Plato (Norton 33-48)

Week 3
Day 1) Plato (Norton 49-80)
Day 2) Aristotle (Norton 86-117)

Week 4
Day 1) Plotinus (Norton 171-185)
Day 2) Horace (Norton 121-135); Longinus (Norton 135-154)

Paper #1 (5 pages—due end of week 5)
Discuss the social arguments for or against poetry outlined by the classical theorists (possibly including Plotinus's response to Plato [Norton 171-185]), and compare these arguments to present-day justifications for censorship (in entertainment, news reporting, etc.).

Week 5
Day 1) Scaliger (PDF file); Boccacio (Norton 253-262)
Day 2) Castelvetro (PDF file); Mazzoni (Norton 299-323)

Week 6
Day 1) Sydney (Norton 323-362); Gosson and Antitheatricalists
Day 2) Corneille (Norton 363-378)

Week 7
Day 1) Dryden (Norton 379-388); Johnson (Norton 458-482)
Day 2) Young (Norton 426-437)

Week 8
Day 1) Shelley (Norton 695-717); Pater (Norton 833-841)
Day 2)  Ben Jonson—Volpone

Week 9
Day 1) William Shakespeare—As You Like It
Day 2) Wrap up/History of Literary Theory (chart)

Paper #2 (10 pagesdue noon Thursday of Finals week)
Discuss the impact of Classical literary theory on Renaissance literary theory. How are Renaissance theorists/critics using and/or changing the ideas of the Classical theorists/critics? How is the dynamic between Classical and Renaissance literary criticism reflected in Volpone and As You Like It?