September 26, 2014, BY Heather Johns

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Welcome to "Cool Classes," a regular feature that highlights the interesting, intriguing and unexpected in Bucknell University's course catalog.

What class? ENGL 251: Violence and Revenge in Renaissance Literature

Who teaches it? Professor Rebecca Willoughby, English

"My class is kind of crazy. The circumstances that occur in texts of the Renaissance — and the responses the characters have to them — are extreme. Those sorts of wild events and behaviors can be fascinating to explore because they're so different from our everyday experience.

"Some of the most outrageous entertainment we have today could be trumped by Renaissance drama. Most students are unfamiliar with Renaissance drama other than Shakespeare — and that's why I include texts written by a number of his contemporaries who are pretty inventive with revenge tactics in their plays, such as John Ford and George Chapman. Usually students are surprised that we're still working through so many of the same issues — loyalty and betrayal, familial bonds, social stratification, gender expectations — in these works as we are in modern revenge narratives. The theme is really timeless, unfortunately. But I think we can benefit from a better understanding of where the cycle of violence begins.

"Since we're looking at drama — entertainment, something audiences choose to consume — students explore why writers and artists continue to create works that display such insane behavior. We study both Renaissance dramas and how the themes of those dramas have been translated and adapted to some contemporary entertainment, so students examine a variety of ways 'justice' is conceptualized, the ways violence is represented, and what the effects those representations have on audiences that consume them. We also do a number of group assignments, some of which involve performance and interpretation. It's cool to see how students re-envision some of these episodes.

"Studying these types of texts can be pretty intense on the literal level, and then of course we also look at how those representations are symbolic and metaphoric and poetic. Most people don't naturally think of violence as art, but that's what it is in this case. It can change the way you think about how (and why) violence is represented in entertainment today, as well.   

"The subject matter can be off-putting to some, but I think many people are interested in it. It's kind of like riding a roller coaster — reading these texts can be a thrill!"

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