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EN9A8 Reviewing Shakespeare

Running: Spring Term 2015

Dr Paul Prescott


This module provides students with an opportunity to explore, in depth, the translation of Shakespeare’s texts into performance and the various ways of receiving and analysing those performances. It aims to help students become better readers and writers of theatre reviews by a) understanding the history of theatre criticism, and b) developing their own critical practice. Trips to the RSC and ther local theatres will be complemented by a range of workshops with theatre professionals (actors, designers, directors, critics). An emphasis will be placed on re-viewing performance in order to grasp the volatility and openness of the theatrical event.


50% = Esssay of 2.5, 3, 4 or 5K depending on the CATS weighting for which the student is registered.

50% = Portfolio of theatre reviews and reflective essay 2.5, 3, 4 or 5K depending on CATS points  

Indicative syllabus:

Week 1: Nightwatch Constables: the figure of the critic in early modern drama and culture

Week 2 : The Heavy Casket of Reminiscence: Reviewing as memory/memorial

Week 3 : Two Households: The Competitive / Comparative tradition in British reviewing, 18th C to present

Week 4 : Reviewing Workshop 1: (based on live production seen as group)

Week 5 : The Rise of the Director: Reviewing in the Twentieth century and beyond

Week 6: Workshop with guest practitioner

Week 7 : The Politics of Shakespearean reviewing: The World Shakespeare Festival 2012

Week 8 : Reviewing Workshop 2: style, voice, persona, audience, platform

Week 9 : Reviewing Workshop 3: (based on live production/s seen as group or individually)

Week 10 : Where next? The Internet, citizen journalism and the 'democratization' of reviewing

Indicative Reading List:


Stephen Greenblatt et al, eds. The Norton Shakespeare.

Aston and Savona, Theatre as Sign System. London, 1991.

Maria Delgado and Paul Heritage, eds., In Contact with Gods? - Directors Talk Theatre. Manchester, 1996.

Michael Billington, One Night Stands (London, 1993)

Dominic Shellard (ed), Theatre Writings by Kenneth Tynan (London 2007)

Stanley Wells, ed. Shakespeare in the Theatre. Oxford, 1997.

Paul Prescott, Reviewing Shakespeare: Journalism and Performance from the eighteenth century to the present. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Edmondson, Prescott and Sullivan, eds, A Year of Shakespeare: Re–living the World Shakespeare Festival. Arden/Bloomsbury, 2013.

Edmondson, Prescott and Smith, eds. Reviewing Shakespearean Theatre: The State of the Art. Shakespeare 6:3 (2010). Routledge.

Prescott, Valls-Russell, Smith, eds, ‘Nothing if not critical’: International Perspectives on Shakespearean Theatre Criticism. Fortieth anniversary edition of Cahiers Élisabéthains; Montpellier, 2012.


David Bradby and David Williams. Directors’ Theatre. Basingstoke, 1988.

David Wiles. A Short History of Western Performance Space. Cambridge, 2003.

Susan Bennett. Theatre Audiences. London, 1997.

Ric Knowles, Reading the Materialist Theatre. Cambridge, 2004.

Dennis Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare. Cambridge, 2003.

Stanley Wells and Sarah Stanton (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge, 2002.

Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson (eds), The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage. Oxford, 1996.

Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: a cultural history from the Restoration to the present. London, 1990.

have you the makings...

Four Thoughts on Reviewing:

The critic as aesthetic arbiter has, I think, no proper social function, no defensible criteria upon which to base his subjective judgments, and, historical precedent notwithstanding, no strong case at law with which to defend them […] the critic could be retrained as a data collector, confined to the production of objective statements, and encouraged to redeem himself in a society for which […] he has served as a morally disruptive, and aesthetically destructive, influence.

Glenn Gould, The Glenn Gould Reader

There seem to be strange ideas about what constitutes a critic, particularly a dramatic critic. Given a sense of humour and a nimble pen and not much else is thought to matter. Never mind if the writer is entirely unversed in a highly technical craft, never mind if by temperament he is wholly unfitted for any such vocation, provided he is facile and amusing from the point of view of the newspaper reader.

Bernard Weller, ‘Probation for Critics’. The Critics’ Circular 1:1 (Nov. 1923), 5.

The first thing any critic ought to make clear is his capacity for boredom. The man who never yawns in the theatre is a menace to it, as callow and gullible as he is insensitive. Only maniacs are never bored. The extreme, total pleasure a critic gets out of a work of art is so elating that, in its absence, he resembles nothing so much as an addict who has lost his hypodermic.

Kenneth Tynan, first review in The Daily Sketch, 1951

Every piece of criticism I ever wrote grew out of […] a desperate tussle to follow the vagaries of my own style in order to understand fully the intricacies of my own reaction. One should also mention that never-ending struggle being waged between biases, prejudices, and an attempt to be fair – not in any flaccid, objective sense, but to the whirl of one’s own feelings. That kind of fairness, the need to seize the truth of one’s own response out of the fire of contradictory emotions, is perhaps the most agonizing part of criticism.

Charles Marowitz, Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic, 35