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"The Works of Wm Shakespeare as they have been sundry times professed in Harvard College"



Dayton Haskin

Department of English

Boston College

 
 

The Harvard presidency of Charles W. Eliot (1869-1909), which is remembered especially for the introduction of the elective system, was marked by a large increase in the student body, the hiring of a much larger and more specialized faculty, and the creation of departmental disciplines. It also witnessed the installation in 1876 of Francis Child's year-long "Shakspere" course, English 2. This turned out to be the new English Department's most stable offering well into the twentieth century. For six decades English 2 was taught every year, and only by Child or by George Lyman Kittredge. In their hands the course typically consisted of the close study of some half dozen or so plays, taught in a two-year rotation, so that about fifteen plays received regular coverage. The textbooks were handsome editions in which the text was printed on one side of a page opposite a blank paper, on which the students recorded their instructors' glosses. (These seem to have been the forerunners for the format still used in the Folger editions.) Meanwhile an alternative Shakespeare course emerged. English 23 provided a rapid survey of nearly all the plays. It was taught by Barrett Wendell, who had first given the course experimentally at the so-called Harvard Annex (later, Radcliffe College) as the first literature course of his teaching career. Wendell 's lectures were largely congruent with what may be found in the book that he published on Shakespeare in 1894. As it happened, that was the year when the English Department began offering a large survey on the history of English literature taught by a team of star faculty members; in English 28, lecturing on the Bard sometimes fell to Kittredge, sometimes to Wendell.

 

This paper will explore differing concepts of "Shakespeare" (both the man and his works) that informed various courses during Eliot's forty-year presidency. Drawing selectively on professors' lecture notes, student notebooks, annotated textbooks, examinations, and other materials in the archives of Harvard, Radcliffe, and several other colleges, it means to raise questions about what was considered central and what marginal, and to locate some things that were particularly controversial. At the same time the paper will attempt to notice what was left out and to promote interest in exploring the implications of absences that seem to have been deliberate. This more speculative work is facilitated by two sets of data closely connected with Wendell's self-consciously "unorthodox" approach: (1) an extensive body of material that enables us to reconstruct the first drama course offered at Harvard, English 14, "The Drama (excluding Shakspere) from the Miracle Plays to the Closing of the Theaters," a course invented by Wendell and made nationally famous by his protégé, George Pierce Baker; and (2) a private notebook kept by Wendell when he was first teaching Shakespeare's plays—and when his audience was precisely a group of young women.

 



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