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Shakespeare without Chairs



Prof. Carol Chillington Rutter

A Manifesto for Shakespeare Without Chairs

A Philosophy of Learning – or – What We’re Doing in Shax sans Seats

Taught in the IATL Centre using teaching methods that explore open space and enactive learning, ‘Shakespeare Without Chairs’ takes an innovative approach to re-imagining the standard academic seminar. We work in a rehearsal room, in shared space where conventional hierarchies (teacher/student) are dismantled to be replaced with the idea, borrowed from the theatre rehearsal room, of the ensemble. We operate democratically as a group of collaborators to investigate Shakespeare’s texts on our feet, in three dimensions. ‘De-throning’ standard academic authority – the academic in the rehearsal room is an authority but not in authority – we work through experiment, creative offer, and play, taking risks by establishing intellectual, physical, and creative trust. Simultaneously, we empower the learner. Making individuals responsible for particular ‘knowledges’ that they then own and represent across the term, we ask them to wear ‘the mantle of the expert’ in their area and to offer their expertise to the ensemble. Our workshops aim to tackle ‘threshold concepts’ and ‘troublesome knowledge’. We ask: how do we, as continuous learners, embolden ourselves to cross over thresholds and encounter the troublesome, especially when such encounters inevitably mean a ‘loss of previous certainties’ and involve a ‘reconstitution of the self’? How do we take risks as learners? And how do we make creative use of failure? (We take it as understood that failure must be admitted as a productive aspect of learning. Like the actor rehearsing or the writer redrafting, the student must be permitted to fail in order – as Beckett has put it – to ‘fail better’.)

Knowledges: (each student will choose one to be responsible for, play by play, in term 1)

1. Music

2. Fashion/Clothing/Costumes

3. Medicine/Herbals/Obstetrics

4. Cosmography/Planets/Universal Order

5. Religion/Reformation/the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer

6. Poetry: formality vs. social dialogue

7. Maps: old worlds and new

8. Writing, Printing, Books

9. Government: monarchy; republic; patriarchy; family

10. Players and Playhouses

11. The Classical Inheritance (particularly, Ovid)

12. Rhetoric

13. Law

14. Material Culture: Household Stuff, Staged Objects


All of these ‘knowledges’ are simultaneously and continuously in play in Shakespeare’s playwriting, so your job is to track your ‘knowledge’ through the week’s play. Each week, you will be offered a set of questions that you may use – or ignore – in circulating to the ensemble in advance of the workshop your thoughts (no more than 500 words as informal tutorial essay) on how your ‘knowledge’ informs the play. For example, in the Hamlet week, the questions posed to the entire group might be (remember: you write only about your ‘knowledge’):

  1. Music: Why the recorders? What is the effect of Ophelia’s song? Sound effects in the play? Noise?
  2. Fashion: Comment on ‘fashion’ consciousness in the play (‘the glass of fashion…observ’d of all observers’), things in and out of fashion, and how they relate to dress. How would Ophelia have been dressed for burial?
  3. Medicine: Diagnose madness in the play. Can we ‘inoculate’ the ‘old stock’ – and what would that mean? Comment on the body post mortem. How do you read the corpse?
  4. Cosmography: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ (1.5.173-4). Like what? Where does ‘man’ end in the Hamlet universe?
  5. Book of Common Prayer/Religion: comment on the Ghost and on Claudius ‘at prayer’, the one disclosing purgatory, the other attempting confession.
  6. Poetry: comment on Hamlet as love poet (wooing Ophelia) and theatre poet (adding lines to The Murder of Gonzago). Say something about the range of theatre writing on offer in this play (with examples).
  7. Maps: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, England. Comment on the territory of this play and its political meaning.
  8. Books/Printing: How is reading dramatised here? What are ‘tables’ (see 1.5.107) and how are they used? What about letters? Sealed documents? And the body as book: Ophelia as ‘A document in madness: thoughts and remembrance fitted’ (4.5.176).
  9. Government/Monarchy: Look at speeches of ‘politic’ advice – Laertes to Ophelia, Polonius to Ophelia, Hamlet to Gertrude, Hamlet to the Players. What does ‘government’ mean in this play? Obedience? Duty? And subversion? Rebellion?
  10. Plays and Players: comment on the play scene as performance (first as dumb show then voiced) and as spectator event: who’s playing what to whom?
  11. Ovid: How does the fall of Troy figure in this play? What models of filiality are on offer here? And to what end?
  12. Rhetoric: Comment on Hamlet’s rhetorical strategies in soliloquy. Comment on the rhetorical effects of Claudius’s political speeches. Do women ‘talk’ different in Hamlet? Is speech gendered?
  13. Law: what laws are at work in this play and how to we process them? Natural law (viz, the ‘unweeded garden’? Biblical law (viz. adultery, incest)? Canon law (viz, ‘self-slaughter’, burial rites)? International law (execution of the prince – or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)?
  14. Material Culture: Household Stuff/Staged Objects: produce a list of essential props for this play, offering readings of these objects literally and/or figuratively

Workshops: are weekly and run for two and a half hours in the rehearsal room at the IATL Centre. As in a rehearsal environment, you are expected to arrive on time and ready to start work. You should wear clothes you can move about in freely and either soft-soled shoes or bare feet. Each workshop will begin with a physical and a vocal warm-up, led by members of the workshop. You should bring your text: either a Complete Works or, more conveniently, a single-play edition. You will be expected to have read the week’s play in detail before the workshop, and to be prepared to work actively and collaboratively. Remember: the workshop is not about acting or performing; it’s about working on text.

Lectures: for EN301 are in the Arts Centre Conference Room on Mondays, 2.00 – 3.00 and Wednesdays, 12.00 – 1.00. Additional activities for the module will be advertised in advance (including theatre trips and workshops).

Assessment: by written assessment (1 x 5000 word essay or equivalent) and examination (1 3-hour paper, summer term). Students will be encouraged to think creatively about their written assessment and to explore, on the model of teaching/learning innovation on the module, innovative forms of writing into the module.

E-mail circulation lists will be set up at the beginning of the module. You can contact Carol Rutter by email (, telephone at the IATL Centre (02476 150526) or at home (01789 450 795).