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Study information

Life and Death in Early Modern Literature

Module titleLife and Death in Early Modern Literature
Module codeEAS3179
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Dr Victoria Sparey (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

In this module, we will read early modern works that are engaged with the milestones of human life: childhood, adolescence, parenthood, marriage, ageing and death. These stages of the life cycle are represented in a wide range of plays, poems, and prose pieces by such writers as William Shakespeare, Thomas Heywood, Isabella Whitney, John Donne, Thomas Middleton, Dorothy Leigh and Katherine Philips. Analysing the module’s core texts, you will encounter a rich variety of early modern views on how the stage of an individual’s life is related to his or her understanding of self, family, and state. In addition to literary representations of the life cycle, you will examine non-literary materials such as ballads and songs, sermons, and medical writing from the same period. In its combined exploration of core and contextual materials, this module aims to encourage you to pursue textual analyses that recognise important nuances within early modern representations of Life and Death. You will be given the opportunity to investigate how early modern writers’ concerns with birth, marriage, and death prompt exploration of adjacent fields such as illegitimacy, impotence, health, sickness, ageing, spiritual uncertainty and poetic legacy.

The module is aimed at students without any background knowledge, and those of you wishing to build on and refine your experience of early modern literature and drama at earlier stages of your degree. It is recommended for those of you considering postgraduate study in an early modern or related field. You will be encouraged to develop independent research skills, especially in the identification and analysis of contextual materials.

Module aims - intentions of the module

Life and Death is designed to advance knowledge and appreciation of early modern English culture. Through rigorously examining early modern literature that connected the stages of life to ideas of self, family and state, you will be invited to make your own contribution to intellectual debates about early modern views regarding the life cycle. Was producing children always crucial to concepts of selfhood within the period? To what extent does literature give insight into debates surrounding affective relationships between family members in the early modern period? How did different early modern writers confront the idea of dying?

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate an informed appreciation of specific works of early modern literature that engage with ideas about stages in an individual’s life
  • 2. Confidently relate these literary works to the relevant contextual material from the period
  • 3. Demonstrate an informed appreciation of a variety of critical approaches to the early modern life cycle

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. Demonstrate an advanced ability to analyse literature and to relate its concerns and its modes of expression to its historical context
  • 5. Demonstrate an advanced ability to interrelate texts and discourses specific to their own discipline with issues in the wider context of cultural and intellectual history
  • 6. Demonstrate an advanced ability to understand and analyse relevant theoretical ideas, and to apply these ideas to literary texts

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 7. Through essay-writing, demonstrate appropriate research and bibliographic skills, an advanced capacity to construct a coherent, substantiated argument, and a capacity to write clear and correct prose
  • 8. Through research for seminars and essays, demonstrate proficiency in information retrieval and analysis
  • 9. Through research, seminar discussion, and essay writing demonstrate a capacity to question assumptions, to distinguish between fact and opinion, and to critically reflect on their own learning process
  • 10. Through producing a range of components for their portfolio, demonstrate proficiency in presenting research in written and spoken forms that use digital technologies.

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

The module is structured around four sub-topics relating to the human life cycle:

  • ‘Having Children and Being Parents’;
  • Growing Up’;
  • Unrest Within and Without the Household’;
  • ‘Getting Old, Dying, and Leaving a Legacy’.

Within the topic of ‘Having Children and Being Parents’, you will examine that will include some or all of the following texts: bereavement poetry by Katharine Philips and Ben Jonson; Dorothy Leigh’s A Mother’s Blessing, and Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.

Within the topic of ‘Growing Up’ you will examine some or all of the following texts: Ben Jon’s Hymenaei: John Milton’s Comus, and John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s Love’s Cure, Or The Martial Maid.

Within the topic of ‘Unrest Within and Without the Household’, you will consider texts that may include: Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday; Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed With Kindness, and John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Within the topic of ‘Getting Old, Dying, and Leaving a Legacy’ you will examine some or all of the following texts: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and poetry by Isabella Whitney, John Donne and Shakespeare.

While texts are organised by thematic topics pertinent to understanding aspects of each text, you are encouraged to draw comparisons across texts and topics within the module as a whole.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching22Seminars
Scheduled learning and teaching15Lectures
Guided independent study33Study group preparation and meetings
Guided independent study70Seminar preparation (individual)
Guided independent study160Reading, research and essay preparation

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay503000 words1-9Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up
Portfolio (3 components)401x750-word blog, 1x1000-word essay, 1x3-minute video essay1-10Feedback sheet with opportunity for tutorial follow-up
Module Participation10Throughout the term1-6, 8, 9Opportunity for informal feedback in office hours

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay (3000 words)Essay (3000 words)1-9Referral/Deferral period
Portfolio (3 components - 1x750-word blog, 1x1000-word essay, 1x3-minute video essay)Portfolio (3 components - 1x750-word blog, 1x1000-word essay, 1x3-minute video essay)1-10Referral/Deferral period
Module ParticipationModule Participation1-6, 8, 9Repeat Study/Mitigation

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Core reading:

  • English Renaissance Drama: A Norton Anthology, ed. David Bevington et al. (W.W. Norton, 2002). 
  • A Woman Killed With Kindness and other Domestic Plays, ed. Martin Wiggins (Oxford World Classics, 2008).

You may have a modern scholarly edition of  Hamlet that can be used for the module and should check with seminar leaders whether individual editions will be suitable.  

Secondary Reading:

  • David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. (1999)
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (1980)
  • Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (1996)
  • Kathryn M. Moncrief and Kathryn R. McPherson, Performing Maternity in Early Modern England (2007)
  • Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy (1997)
  • Lind Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relationships from 1500 to 1900 (1983)                    
  • Wendy Wall, The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (1993)
  • Susan Zimmerman, (ed.), Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage (1992)


Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

English literature, early modern, Renaissance, life and death

Credit value30
Module ECTS


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NQF level (module)


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