Spooky Shakespeare HarvardX Course Debuts on Halloween

A new massive open online course will debut on HarvardX Monday, but with a special Halloween twist: the course is titled “Hamlet’s Ghost,” and explores not only the role of an unusual character in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, but also notions of death, ghosts, and the afterlife in both Shakespeare’s England and today.

Course organizers said the launch date is timely not only because it falls on Oct. 31, but also because 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

The course is taught by Shakespeare expert and University professor Stephen J. Greenblatt. Greenblatt, who first proposed the idea for the course to HarvardX developers in 2013, said he was interested in using virtual education platforms to bring Shakespeare, free of charge, to much larger audiences than traditional courses allow.

“I was interested in these issues of lifelong learning—what it means to bring material of this kind to a much broader group of people, no matter what age they are, where they are, or the educational level they’re at,” Greenblatt said. “In this case, people who might be interested in learning some more about Hamlet, about ghosts, about the general phenomenon of how people deal with the loss of loved ones.”

The course includes a module on the historical context in which the play was written and originally performed, taking students through a series of videos filmed at special locations across England including the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.

In the course module, Greenblatt also visits a special exhibition hosted by the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford titled “Shakespeare’s Dead,” which, like the course, focuses on the theme of death in the works of Shakespeare.

“It was a perfect alignment of subject matter,” said Zachary S. Davis, a project lead at HarvardX who helped organize the course. “What it really shows is that there are some things, like inter-university collaboration, which are even more enabled through online courses.”

The online format also allowed producers to incorporate more conversations and dialogue into the course, according to Maria P. Devlin, a Ph.D. student in English who worked closely with Greenblatt on the course’s development.

“What you see in a lecture course is a professor giving you a reading of the play, but what you see in these videos is often two people having a conversation,” Devlin said. “And I think that’s a great way for students to see scholarship being done, that these ideas don’t just come out of nowhere—they come out of dialogue.”

Robert A. Lue, faculty director at HarvardX, said he is optimistic about the course's reception.

“Given that it’s Stephen Greenblatt, given that it’s Hamlet’s ghost, which is a particularly compelling character in all of Shakespeare, I would expect it would be popular,” he said.

The course’s developers have already made plans to make Hamlet’s Ghost the first in an ongoing series of courses about Shakespeare’s great plays. Next in line are the Merchant of Venice and Othello, expected to launch in 2017, according to Greenblatt.

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