Teaching & Learning


Using anatomical drawings to help teach Shakespeare

Dr Chris Laoutaris, from the Department of English Language and Literature, explains how he used the UCL Art Museum to help his students understand Shakespeare plays.


9 August 2013

I began using object-based learning last year for an MA class on Titus Andronicus.

The play makes several references to the fragmented body, the body being dissected, and connections between the body politic and the human body, and I wanted to teach my students about the context of Renaissance anatomy and how people of Shakespeare’s generation may have understood the body in order to help them read the text in a new way.

I contacted Andrea Fredericksen at the UCL Art Museum and she drew my attention to their online anatomy pack.

It gives you a list of all of UCL’s anatomical prints and artworks, so I was able to use that to construct a class.

It was quite striking; we converted the UCL Art Museum into a kind of anatomy theatre with prints from different anatomy books along the walls. I was able to walk students around this three-dimensional space, drawing their attention to different images from the Renaissance and discussing what implications they may have had for Shakespeare’s own writing of Titus Andronicus and how that could help us read it in a fresh way.

We even brought in a book by Andreas Vesalius, the founding father of anatomy, from the Special Collections. It’s a very rare thing, a huge tome with really lavish illustrations which may have been done by Titian’s own workshop.

Alongside that, I was able to show the students Renaissance drawings of classical sculptures, which inspired Vesalius’s drawings, to demonstrate the dialogue between classical wisdom and classical anatomy. Hopefully, I was also conveying the relationship between the classical body and the contemporary body, showing the students that Shakespeare engages in that very same dialogue in the play.

I then organised a tour for undergraduates called ‘Treasures of the UCL Art Collections’, featuring rare prints, drawings, etchings and engravings from Shakespeare’s plays. Once again, I was able to use the UCL Art Museum’s catalogues to select some of their more interesting pieces and conduct a kind of pop-up lecture for students. Initially it was supposed to be one session but it was quite popular, so it ended up becoming three sessions.

That was a nice indicator of how much students want to use these collections – they’re so interested in inter-disciplinary learning.

A fresh way to teach with a different sensory experience

Teaching Shakespeare can be challenging: we’re separated from the culture by several centuries and it can be difficult to get into the right mind-set when looking at text alone.

Language has changed; the nuances that Shakespeare introduced can easily be lost.

A visual artefact or image, however, communicates instantly across the centuries. I’ve always found that if you give students an image to look at in relation to a particularly difficult passage, it suddenly becomes easier for them to draw out resonant themes because the image is a kind of repository of the concerns and mood of a period in time.

Object-based learning is also immensely useful as a mnemonic device; it’s much easier to recall something you’ve done in a seminar if you can remember an object or image that was attached to it.

Using the technique across a department

I’m not the only person in the Department of English Language and Literature engaging in object-based learning – it’s encouraged across the department, as it’s a way of giving students more context for what they’re doing and encouraging them to see literary works as existing in a wider context rather than a vacuum.

It also helps them learn how to use archives. One of my students is even doing a PhD around anatomy and theories of vision relating to art at the time, so I think object-based learning can have a real impact.

Not just resources: support and inspiration from the Art Museum

What I particularly like about the UCL Art Museum is that, with their anatomy pack for example, for each image they don’t just give basic information like who produced an image, they also offer some pointers on how to interpret the image, or how leading art historians may have done so, which is very useful for us as teachers and for students who may not necessarily have the specialist backgrounds that enable them to know how to deal with a picture.

The staff at the Art Museum are so helpful – if anyone reads this and wants to try object-based learning for themselves, I would definitely advise them to get in touch with the museum or collection they’re interested in.

When I approached Andrea and Christina at the UCL Art Museum about my ideas, they made fantastic suggestions of things I could use which I hadn’t thought of because I didn’t know they were there. This process has certainly opened my eyes to the vast quantities of fascinating, fabulous material we’ve got at UCL which could feed into teaching in so many ways.

I would like to encourage more people to do object-based learning. Not only does it enable more students to access the collections, it also makes the teaching and learning experience a lot more exciting for everyone involved – I absolutely love teaching in this way.