Online course in Literature

Penshurst Place and The Sidney Family of Writers

Uncover the literary history of Penshurst Place, the 16th-century home of the Sidney family of writers and poets.

  • Duration 4 weeks
  • Weekly study 3 hours
  • Learn Free
  • Extra benefits From $44 Find out more

Learn how Lady Mary Wroth and the Sidney family shaped the English Renaissance

In the 16th century, Penshurst Place was the home to the Sidney family, renowned for their literary works in the age of Shakespeare. The family, including Lady Mary Wroth and her uncle Sir Philip Sidney, wrote poetry and prose that still appeal to audiences today.

On this course, you will be introduced to Penshurst Place, the Sidney family, and their famous works. You will learn how Lady Mary Wroth and Mary Sidney paved the way for female authors in Elizabethan England. You will also review Wroth’s drama ‘Love’s Victory’, which was reenacted and filmed at Penshurst Place in September 2018.

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsWhen we think of Elizabethan England, authors like Shakespeare and Marlowe spring readily to mind. But this is by no means the whole story. Here at Penshurst Place in Kent, a family of writers reshaped the literary landscape of the time. Penshurst Place has been the home of the Sidney family since 1552. And thanks to the Viscount De L'Isle and staff at Penshurst, we will be using this beautiful country house to study the Sidney family writings. In this course, you will encounter extracts from the Sidney writings with commentary by international experts. By studying readings and performances in a deeply resonant historic setting, you will learn about the Sidneys' extraordinary literary impact and discover the creative power of Penshurst itself.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 secondsThe Sidneys, no less than Shakespeare, had quill power, the ability to shape the world around them through writing. You will study extracts from the prose, poetry, letters, and translations, and the drama of five Sidney writers which had a transformative effect on English literature from the 16th and 17th centuries right up to the present. The ways we write, or think about love and friendship, about our place in the natural world, about marriage, gender, or belief in times of religious and social change all find echoes in the work of the Sidneys. The Sidney family is especially remarkable because women as well as men had quill power.

Skip to 1 minute and 40 secondsAlthough women's writing was unusual in the age of Shakespeare, the Sidney women shared their work within the household, predating the Wordsworths, Shelleys, and the Brontes by over 200 years. You will learn how the Sidney men and women wrote in collaboration and differently from each other according to gender. Having learned how quills and ink were used to craft beautiful love sonnets, you can try taking up the quill yourself. As part of the course, you will read extracts from their romantic dramas and adventure stories, and experiment by designing a costume for one of their plays.

Skip to 2 minutes and 17 secondsBy studying the Sidney scripts, which were written for performance in great households, you will uncover a very different type of theatre from the commercial playhouses of Shakespeare. It was one where women could both write and perform. And by watching extracts in production, you can judge how well you think they stand up in comparison as dramatists. The course will introduce you to the Sidneys' spiritual as well as secular writings, showing how the religious struggles in Europe inform their translation of Christian texts. You'll also learn how their classical education with Greek and Roman mythology opened up doorways to different depictions of the divine, which often unsettled conventions of gender or sexuality authorised by Christian culture.

Skip to 3 minutes and 3 secondsSo join us on this course to experience a taste of how the Sidneys wrote about love, about belief, and how they staged drama in their country houses. Come with us as we explore Penshurst Place and the crucible for creativity that it undoubtedly was for the Sidneys.

What topics will you cover?

  • An introduction to the Sidney family
  • The literary and family relationships between the writers and their family home, Penshurst Place.
  • The Sidneys and Romantic Love
  • Household drama and its comparison with Shakespearean playhouses
  • The Sidneys and Religion

When would you like to start?

Most FutureLearn courses run multiple times. Every run of a course has a set start date but you can join it and work through it after it starts. Find out more

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you'll be able to...

  • Explore how aristocratic family networks fostered writing by both men and women in the age of Shakespeare
  • Evaluate examples of writings by the Sidney family and their importance as an influence on English literary history
  • Investigate a different type of theatre from Shakespeare's age
  • Explore how individual writers responded to questions of faith and belief in a time of turbulent religious change
  • Investigate how writing shapes the natural environment and the emotions of others both within a family network and beyond.

Who is the course for?

This course is for anyone with an interest in English Renaissance literature and the Sidney family. It would suit recent visitors to Penshurst Place looking to enhance their knowledge, people interested in women’s writing, and students studying Shakespeare and Marlowe.

Who will you learn with?

Alison Findlay

Alison Findlay

Alison Findlay is Professor of Renaissance Drama at Lancaster University and Chair of the British Shakespeare Association.

Who developed the course?

Lancaster University is a collegiate university, with a global reputation as a centre for research, scholarship and teaching with an emphasis on employability.

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