This module introduces undergraduate students to essential methods for using cultural studies to analyze Shakespeare. The four activities and two assignments should allow students to understand how cultural contexts and concepts from the past and present inform our understanding of King Lear. After mastering these skills, students can use the service learning exercise in this module to familiarize middle or high schoolers with Shakespeare’s participation in broader cultural conversations related to high and low genres.
The goal of this module is to show students how a play like Lear is a product of, and participates in producing, history and culture. Because it is a broad, interdisciplinary methodology, cultural studies approaches to Shakespeare can take many forms. The first set of assignments focuses on intertextual approaches to cultural studies, using non-canonical early modern texts as cultural artifacts that, together with the play, help us to better understand Lear’s historical context and impact. By reading Lear alongside culturally and historically related texts (particularly texts that are non-dramatic, non-canonical and/or non-literary), students learn to see the text as one part of a broader cultural and historical conversation. In doing so, they can begin to identify common issues and themes (or, conversely, important points of difference) between Lear and other relevant texts.
The second set of assignments uses contemporary theoretical approaches to investigate cultural concepts, attitudes, stereotypes and identities as they are represented in the play. By reading Lear through the lenses of feminism, gender studies, and disability studies, students can more deeply explore key themes and ideas in the play. This method encourages students to think about how the play’s themes can reveal early modern stereotypes and ideas, and can offer relevant commentary on our own twenty-first-century attitudes and assumptions.
As a supplement to this module, we have digitized two early printings of Lear along with Shakespeare’s primary sources (see Digital Texts). Students can use the Mirador reader for side-by-side comparison of Shakespeare’s play with his sources, or search these digital texts for keywords related to gender and/or disability.
Title and Woodcut from “King Lear and His Three Daughters” (British Library - Roxburghe 3.542-543; EBBA 31243), https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/31243
|Simone Chess is an Associate Professor of English at Wayne State University and an affiliate of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program. Her book, Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern English Literature: Gender, Performance, and Queer Relations (Routledge, 2016) is the first monograph in early modern studies to engage explicitly and extensively with trans theory, and to be reviewed in Transgender Studies Quarterly. It argues that representations of male-to-female crossdressers in literature show models of queer male femininities that are, somewhat surprisingly, both relational and beneficial. In addition to the book, she has published articles and book chapters on topics including male femininity in Shakespeare, adolescent asexuality in early modern drama, crossdressing and gender labor, bathroom activism, ballads and Shakespeare, early modern representations of blindness, the role of oath-making in “murderous wife” ballads, and other aspects of early modern gendered representation. Her second book project, Queer, Crip, Early Modern, brings together early modern queer and disability studies|