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Historical Fiction: Shakespeare to Cather

ENG 412

Historical Fiction: Shakespeare to Cather

Description and Objectives

This class will focus on continuing to develop college-bound students’ ability to read closely and understand challenging literature, as well as how to write about it with critical acumen and style. To prepare him for independent and thoughtful academic reflection in college, each student is required to conduct research and to write four, separate, typed compositions of four or more pages in length.  The papers will be based on the works being read and discussed in class.  The class will begin with a thorough study of genre theory, so that we may better identify and appreciate the lyric, comic, tragic, and epic modes of expression found in literature.

Historical Fiction: Shakespeare to Cather offers an exploration of human character viewed through the lens of history, examining the virtue and vice of real human lives lived and chronicled by two master storytellers, William Shakespeare and Willa Cather.  Shakespeare’s “history plays” present a carefully worked out vision of history, showing the way in which divine providence operates in the world of human affairs.  The second tetralogy, beginning with the fall of Richard, explores the nature of kingship and those qualities needed to be a good prince and king.  This series of four plays examines the endless cycle of human action, from order to chaos and back again to order, and shows that human communities and political regimes exist in order to further what Allen Tate has called the “one lost truth that must be perpetually recovered- the supratemporal destiny of man.”  We will explore Shakespeare’s genius as a dramatist as he delicately shifts the reader’s attention from the state of the polity to the state of the king’s soul.  Looking then at the New World, we will discover Willa Cather’s beautiful prose style is historic American fiction of the highest literary level of expression.  Her sympathetic imagination, based on historical research of generous lives well led, bring to light the epic and heroic efforts of the French missionaries who helped settle the American Southwest and French Canada.  Death Comes for the Archbishop is an account of the life and challenges of Father Jean Marie Latour, who came in 1851 as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico.  He had to carve out a sacrificial living as a gentle but true shepherd, while dealing with an unforgiving landscape and sometimes unforgiving and derelict sheep who wanted to follow their own path.  In Shadows on the Rock Willa Cather departed from the prairie narratives and takes us to the French island of Quebec, once a place of exile, as it was being settled in 1697.  Here Cather gives us a spellbinding work of historical fiction.  Her central characters are a French apothecary who longs to return home, but is bound by the love of his patron, Count Frontenac, and the apothecary’s young daughter, Cecile, who feels deeply connected to the new country of Canada.  Around them come and go a wonderful array of characters, from Frontenac himself, to the two very different bishops who rule the spiritual live on the Catholic province, to an intrepid young trapper.  This chronicle of a year in the life of French colonists is a profound piece of work as it is an extraordinary tale of ordinary people who lived quiet, humble lives on a rocky fortress, surrounded by the seemingly infinite wilderness of seventeenth-century Canada.


  • Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
  • Richard II, by William Shakespeare
  • Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare
  • Henry IV, Part 2, by William Shakespeare
  • Henry V, by William Shakespeare
  • Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather

Course Requirements

Students are expected to fulfill reading and writing requirements in a timely and thoughtful manner.  All students will be expected to participate in classroom discussions and in periodically scheduled Socratic seminars.  Each student will be expected to commit to memory one chosen poem that is agreed upon with consultation with Mr. Miggins.

Quarter grades will be determined by the following formula:

Quizzes (30%) + Tests/essays/in-class writing (60%) + poem recitation/class participation (10%) = Quarter Grade

Students can expect to be quizzed at least once weekly on the assigned reading material. Although all quizzes will be announced (no pop quizzes), past experience indicates that cursory, last-minute attempts to complete assigned reading, or to replace actual text reading with Cliff Notes-type supplements, invariably will result in a poor quiz average. Students can expect a test-level, in-class writing assignment at least quarterly, as well a several tests and out-of-class essays each quarter

Late papers will be penalized by a letter grade drop for every class period the assignment is late.

To keep a necessary tone of levity and festivity, I will confirm one student as a class representative who will serve as a Manager of Mirth.

Successful Students

Successful students will have a mature approach to their teacher, their peers, and the coursework.

Students are encouraged to read with a pencil, pen, or highlighter in hand, so that pertinent passages or puzzling lines can be marked for discussion in class.

Students are encouraged to seek help early and often if academic difficulty is encountered.

“I am convinced more and more day by day that fine writing is next to fine doing, the top thing in the world.”

-John Keats