Literature and History

In this course we will explore literature through a historical lens. For us to be successful in this mission, we need to put aside any idea that literature is “timeless” or “universal,” and instead take on the assumptions of historians: history is made by real people, in specific situations, amidst particular contexts. In other words, Shakespeare isn’t a transcendent poet who reveals the nature of true love in Romeo and Juliet; instead, he’s a guy who had a shotgun wedding at eighteen, fled to the big city (without his wife or kids) to become a well-known actor and playwright in the emerging and thoroughly disreputable British theater scene and happened to write poignantly (and perhaps nostalgically) about young love.

As literary historians we might look at Shakespeare’s plays another way, too. We could examine how each actor or director interpreted the play and the characters, comparing each production to the historical moment in which it was performed. Quite recently, for example, a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park drew criticism for depicting Caesar in a business suit and red tie similar to President Trump. The play is the same that Shakespeare wrote, but imagined against a backdrop Shakespeare couldn’t have imagined (but perhaps similar to the worry over politics in Shakespeare’s day).

All of Shakespeare’s texts prove to be great examples of how the reception of texts changes over time. When Shakespeare was writing, his works were the popular spectacles of his day—a bit like Marvel movies are now. Conversely, most of us experience Shakespeare under duress in classrooms from dull black-and-white pages. A lot of minds must have changed over time to take Shakespeare from a seedy theater in the wrong part of town to the center of the school curriculum. It’s only with a historical lens that you can begin to unravel how this change happened. It’s an example of the value to be gained from taking a historical view of literature.

This semester we will read a small selection of texts written over a wide expanse of time—nearly four hundred years—from Shakespeare to modern American literary fiction. The amount of history we would have to cover to eke out each historical nuance in the texts we’ll read would be immense if we didn’t focus on particular themes and ideas. So this semester, our texts will be loosely organized around the hurricane.


Hurakán: The Storm of the Americas

The English word hurricane comes from Spanish [huracán] but also exists in the language of other European powers that invested heavily in colonizing the so-called “New World,” such as French [ouragan] and Dutch [orkaan] (Schwartz 6). These all likely derive from the language of the Taino people, indigenous to the Caribbean where hurricanes are most common. Taino depicted the giant circular storms of the hurakán as a diety with swirling arms. , and The word hurricane is derived from the form when the wind from The heat that has been blasting all summer, warming the ocean waters

We won’t be reading Romeo and Juliet this semester, instead our first text will be The Tempest (also by Shakespeare). Not really a comedy or a tragedy, the play is thought to be one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote. By the time he wrote it, he was a wealthy land owner with two daughters and well-respected by the king for his dramatic talents. The Tempest‘s main character is an old man, exiled with his daughter far from home on an island populated by strange spirits. It’s tempting to read the play as an allegory for Shakespeare’s own feelings about the end of his career and his family. It’s equally tempting to read the like Shakespeare likely was with the magic of acting and producing plays. begins with an old man major author. This semester it will be August is the beginning of our semester and the peak season for hurricanes—the most violent type of storm on earth.

This semester we’ll be exploring a natural phenomenon and exploring some of the ways it has been depicted throughout history and from different perspectives. The phenomenon is the hurricane.

Works Cited

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “How do Hurricanes Form?” YouTube, uploaded by NOAA SciJinks, 30 Jul. 2019. https://youtu.be/wPDoIrGUrEc

Schwartz, Stuart B. Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina. Princeton, 2015.