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English literature from Shakespeare to Austen

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This module takes you on an engaging journey through a diverse selection of great literature from 1570 to 1818. You'll focus on two globally recognised writers in English: the playwright William Shakespeare and the novelist Jane Austen. Your literary journey from Shakespeare to Austen will include Renaissance poetry and drama, Restoration comedy, eighteenth-century fiction, Oriental tales, travel writing, autobiography and romantic ballads. 

What you will study

This module will provide you with an engaging and diverse selection of literary works first published in the period from 1570 to 1818. Towards the beginning and near the end of your period of study, you'll focus on two globally recognised writers in English: the playwright William Shakespeare and the novelist Jane Austen. In your literary journey from Shakespeare to Austen, you will be introduced to a selection of writers, both famous and less well-known, in a wide range of literary genres and modes. You'll encounter both tragic and comic drama, along with epic poetry, poems of love, sex, seduction and antiquarian poetry from the Celtic nations.

You will also read a diverse selection of writing in prose, including letters and autobiographical writing, as well as literature derived from oral traditions and sources. Independent study is woven into the module teaching material. You'll be offered four different independent study options at the end of each week, encouraging you to discover, choose and develop your own interests in the literature of the period.

The two hundred and fifty years covered by this module saw the rise of printing and the novel, the establishment of copyright and circulating libraries, the professionalisation of authorship, the suppression and re-establishment of playhouses, and new modes of literary production. In order to understand these changes, a strand through the study material will guide you through many of the set works through the perspectives of book history, especially the production, readership and reception of literary works. Teaching material will develop your understanding of the influence of the oral tradition on printed books, such as that of Irish, Scottish and Welsh songs on Romantic period lyric poetry, as well as tracing the impact of imported forms and modes on English writers, e.g. the Italian Petrarchan sonnet on Donne.

In addition to Shakespeare and Austen, the featured authors you'll encounter include Kyd, Spenser, Donne, Rochester, Wycherley, Molière, Montagu, Haywood, Swift, Coleridge, Chatterton, Brooke, Blake, Scott, MacPherson, Morganwg, and Rousseau. The majority of set works are originally written in English, but there are two works in translation from French, Molière’s Tartuffe (1664) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782-89), and one from Arabic, the anonymously written The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment (1704, 1706).

This module is divided into three books, with all material arranged chronologically.

Book 1: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries provides you with a solid grounding in the main Renaissance genres of drama and poetry. You'll study three Shakespeare plays – the comedy, As You Like It (1599); and the tragedies Julius Caesar (1599) and Hamlet (1602-3). You'll study Thomas Kyd’s earlier and hugely influential revenge tragedy, The Spanish Tragedy (1587). You'll be introduced to key Pan-European poetic forms that flourished in English literature in the period. These are epic poetry, seen through selections from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-96) and the Petrarchan sonnet in English, examined primarily through the poems of John Donne.

Book 2: Restoration and Enlightenment offers you a representative sample of the incredible literary diversity that typified English literature from the mid-17th to the mid-18th centuries. Beginning with the poetry of sex and seduction in the seventeenth century, the tradition of erotic verse is shown through a selection of works. Two near contemporaneous satirical plays follow: the celebrated Restoration English comedy Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675) is juxtaposed with Molière’s biting satire on hypocrisy, Tartuffe (1664).

The remaining chapters demonstrate the explosive rise of new prose literary forms in this period of expanding international trade and discovery. You'll study Jonathan Swift’s scathing political and philosophical satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726, 1735), while two prose works, the first English translation of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment (1706) and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), will demonstrate the establishment of new literary genres (the oriental tale and travel writing), and the growing British fascination with the East.

Book 3: Austen and Romantic Writing begins with selections from the first modern autobiography and a central text of European Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782-89). Antiquarian poetry in the Romantic period follows as you examine the relationship between this form of poetry and oral forms like ballads with the rise of national sentiment in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales through poems from the most important antiquarian collections of the period. 

The remaining four chapters of Austen and Romantic Writing closely guide you through two novels by Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Persuasion (1818). Austen and Romantic Writing showcases emblematic writers and literature from the period by paying particular attention to the rise of national literatures, the presence of the past, the concept of authorship, and the relationship between the writer and the wider world in the Romantic period.

Developing your digital and information literacy skills
In order to deepen your understanding of literature from the past, you'll be introduced to a range of key critical concepts and approaches, ranging from the conventions of Renaissance epic to Orientalism and from political satire to the construction of authorship. You'll also develop your digital and information literacy skills through frequent use of relevant online databases and resources, such as Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and The Reading Experience Database (RED), and you will be encouraged to record and share your independent study through the use of an online learning journal, which will be provided for you.

You will learn

In addition to critically exploring the set texts through close reading and considered analysis, you will develop your capacity for independent study as you progress through the module. You will enhance your ability to think logically and communicate effectively in written English. Your digital and information literacy skills will be developed through a range of online activities and through assessed work. All of these transferrable skills are highly valued by employers.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably at the OU. You should already have some of the skills appropriate to the study of English literature at this level. The OU module Reading and studying literature (A230) (now discontinued) or Telling stories: the novel and beyond (A233) would be ideal preparation for this module, although it is not a formal requirement.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact an adviser.

Preparatory work

You will find it helpful to read as many of the set books as you can before the module begins. 

What's included

Three module books and access to the module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module guide
  • module materials
  • audio and visual content
  • assessment details
  • online tutorials and forums.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Wortley Montagu, Lady Mary: Heffernan, T. & O'Quinn, D. (eds) The Turkish Embassy Letters Broadview Press £17.50 - ISBN 9781554810420
  • Kyd, T.: Gurr, A. & Mulryne, J.R. (eds) The Spanish Tragedy (New Mermaids) Methuen £9.99 - ISBN 9781408114216
  • Swift, J.: Rivero, A.J. (ed) Gulliver's Travels Norton £7.99 - ISBN 9780393957242
  • Wycherley, W.: Stern, T. (ed) The Country Wife (New Mermaids) Methuen £9.99 - ISBN 9781408179895
  • Slater, M. (ed) The Misanthrope, Tartuffe and Other Plays Oxford World's Classics £9.99 - ISBN 9780199540181
  • Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice Oxford World's Classics £4.99 - ISBN 9780198826736
  • Austen, J. Persuasion Oxford World's Classics £4.99 - ISBN 9780199535552
  • Mack, R.L. (ed) Arabian Nights' Entertainments Oxford World's Classics £13.99 - ISBN 9780199555871
  • Daniell, D. (ed) The Arden Shakespeare Julius Caesar Methuen £8.99 - ISBN 9781903436219
  • Shakespeare, W.: Hattaway, M. (ed) As You Like It Cambridge University Press £8.99 - ISBN 9780521732505
  • Rousseau, J.-J.: Coleman, P. (ed) Confessions Oxford World's Classics £11.99 - ISBN 9780199540037
  • Thompson, A. & Taylor, N. (eds) The Arden Shakespeare Hamlet (Revised edn) Bloomsbury £8.99 - ISBN 9781472518385

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor who will help you with the study materials and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer online group tutorials that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend and recordings of these will typically be made available.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box .

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A334 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

English literature Shakespeare to Austen starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2027.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

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