Saylor.org Student Diary: Shakespeare's Subconscious?

As I continue to work through Saylor.org's Shakespeare class, I run into some problems with the secondary articles assigned to supplement plays like ''Twelfth Night''. What kind of quality can one reasonably expect from a free online class?

By Sarah Wright

subconscious shakespeare twelfth night

Issues With Article Quality

I've finished up with Twelfth Night, and had a great time reading it. However, the secondary texts assigned to accompany the play were a bit disappointing. A few of them aren't from scholarly sources, but are 'associated content' articles from Yahoo! - it's all well and good that some people on the Internet will have opinions about Shakespeare. But I don't know that I would trust these random people to have information that's valid and valuable to my education.

Hopefully, the articles were vetted for accuracy by the Saylor.org staff who put the syllabus together, but I can't be sure about this. It's a frustrating aspect of the class. I understand that I'm taking a free class on the Internet, but I feel like some distinction needs to be made between writing that is part of an established scholarly canon and stuff that's just out there with no indication of quality or accuracy.

Specific Problems

Maybe it's a result of my educational background, but I always have to raise an eyebrow when things like this appear in supposedly academic texts, like this bit from one of the Yahoo! articles on the syllabus: 'He subconsciously held to the idea of rebirth that was engendered in the Renaissance as not only a rebirth of the arts and thinking, but as an opportunity to rise above his social position, and to gain fame, even in the court of royalty.' So now we know what Shakespeare's subconscious was doing? How do you know? Did his therapist tell you? It's one thing to argue that this idea of rebirth shows up in Shakespeare's writing, and to provide examples of that, but to say that it was a 'subconscious idea' is questionable, in my opinion.

I don't know if this is something that pervades all Shakespeare scholarship, but I have to say that this is a recurring problem that I'm seeing with the secondary articles in the curriculum for this class. There's a whole lot of biographical focus that blossoms into speculation that ultimately does more to build up the mythos of 'the Immortal Bard' than it does to enhance understanding of the man's writing. A lot of these articles touch on the fact that there's a lot we don't actually know about Shakespeare's life. What we do know is interesting and does provide some context, but speculation about the gray areas doesn't seem necessary to me from a literary standpoint.

Moving On!

Still, in these secondary readings, there are some tidbits that provide helpful context for understanding the plays. For example, this bit of info helped to explain why the gender play in Twelfth Night would have been somewhat timely: 'The rise of the middle class was a hallmark of the Renaissance. During this time, the country was in a war with itself, battling ideas, customs, and religion. With Queen Elizabeth on the throne, the idea that a woman's duty was to submit to the will of man was thrown asunder, at least within the aristocracy. However, women were given more opportunity to learn, and men were encouraged to educate their daughters so that they would not appear stupid in comparison with the queen's intelligence.'

At any rate, I'm looking forward to moving on to the next unit, which is tragedy. I'll be reading Hamlet and Macbeth, two classics that I've already read, thanks to high school English class. Hopefully my established familiarity with the plots of these two plays will help me follow them without having to agonize over linguistic confusion.

To learn more about my progress, check out last week's diary entry.

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