Shakespeare-ing things up

ENGL A424, a class fittingly named “Shakespeare” looks at the famous writer’s work and how his content and philosophy can be applied to today’s day and age.

“He’s arguably the greatest English poet. I think that’s why the university has a class on him, opposed to Marlowe or Ben Jonson,” Patrick Czyz said.

The class is a English literature upperclassman requirement, but can also be a useful upperclassman elective for any major, if the prerequisites are fulfilled. Four students in the class, Ben Kraft, Amani McCummings, Makayla Newman and Czyz are all English majors and all have a fondness to Shakespeare’s work.


Kraft, who is a double major in English and philosophy, enjoys Shakespeare for more than his writing.

“Shakespeare is not only a good writer but his philosophy on humanism is well-thought out and better argued than writers who are just philosophers,” Kraft said.

For McCummings, this class was something to look forward to during the school year.

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“I’m really picky with what I like to read,” McCummings said. “Shakespeare is something I can stomach, even with a lot of homework.”

Shakespeare can be a good class for anyone and the group recommends it for students who may know some things about Shakespeare or not at all.

“Because of how [Shakespeare] has influence, he’s interesting to read, learn and write about. It’s a great class,” Newman said.

The English class divided up to find ways to advocate Shakespeare out into the local community. The students each wrote a small piece about Shakespeare relating to different topics.

Shakespeare and American History – Amani McCummings

Although the name of Shakespeare brings up images of teenagers struggling to decipher Elizabethan English, Shakespeare’s impact on society and culture is far larger than the confines of a classroom. Aside from the social issues addressed in his works, like the constructs of gender and preconceived notions of race, Shakespearean theater in America has also been a catalyst for political unrest, including one of the deadliest civic disturbances in New York City in the form of the Astor Place Riot of 1849, also known as the Shakespeare Riot. The Shakespeare Riot was, on the surface, a dispute between the supporters of two different Shakespearean actors, Edward Forrest and William Charles Macready, but underneath it was a narrative of class struggle and the complicated relationship between America and Britain. Macready was a well known British actor whose supporters were generally Algophile upper-class citizens, while Forrest was a largely popular American actor whose supporters were American nativists and Irish immigrants that made up the lower-classes. The actors’ intense fanbases turned these two Shakespearean actors into figureheads in a political dispute.

The spring of 1849 brought with it performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth performed by both Forrest and Macready, just blocks away from each other. Demonstrations in opposition to the actors started with hissing and food thrown on stage during performances and ended with a full-on riot. On the night of May 10, 1849, Macready’s performance of Macbeth, up to 10,000 people had gathered in the street around the Astor Opera House to find the answer to the question “Shall Americans or English rule this city?” They had been plans to bombard the opera house, or burn it down, and the commotion lead to the police and militia showing up to stop the disturbance. This marked the first time militia had been called out and fired on citizens. The riot ended with no less than 25 dead and 120 injured.

Shakespeare and Sociology – Patrick Czyz

The point we stress in our article is how interdisciplinary Shakespeare studies can be with regard to other subjects. For example, sociology and English are two subject that seem very dissimilar, but a deeper look in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night reveals a connection. While not a main character, Malvolio is uptight, strict and by the book, especially when he has an unruly and drunk audience: “Do you make an alehouse of my lady’s house?” (Act II, s.3). But when he is on patrol all by himself, he freely wanders the grounds of Olivia’s and muses aloud to himself how he would woo Olivia if he had the chance. He envisions his life where he is the master of the house and can aggrandize his prestige: “…and perchance wind up my watch, or play with my—some rich jewel. Toby approaches; curtsies there to me” (Act II, s.3). Fabian even remarks: “O, peace, now he’s deeply in. Look how imagination blows him” (Act II, s.5). The interpersonal conflict is held at the individual level where Malvolio is like everyone else but suppresses his jovial ambitions and spoils the fun for Toby and Maria and Fabian. Malvolio presents a case where he performs his occupation and not himself depending on who is in the room. Also, just like Viola had to assume the masculine identity of Cesario when interacting with the public, Malvolio acts to his occupation when in public. In other words, the view and opinions from others impact how we act. In the social sciences, this is called Cooley’s Looking Glass Self and presents the theory that one’s identity is also merged in how other people perceive them. The importance that a reader can derive from this play is that our behavior is very much determined by who our audience is. If this is negative and controlling for Malvolio, then one can appeal to conflict theory. If Malvolio is best performing his duty in a professional manner, then one can describe his role within functionalism. This harkens back to one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines: “All the world’s a stage.”

In the English Context – Ben Kraft

Shakespeare is the standard author of Western canon. Much of English literature, not just theater and poetry, is both characterized and related to writing in virtually all writing aspects of fiction, history, rhetoric, theology, and philosophy. Much of Shakespeare’s influence is so pervasive it is taken for granted: The sonnet has survived history as one of the eminent poetic forms because Shakespeare embraced it, and his focus on humanism, a philosophy of the inherent value of people as they are without holding them to idealized standards, has had an arguable impact on virtually every well-known philosophical writer in the West since his time. However, the class is also a critique of his attempts to platform on race, anti-Semitism, and gender, observing which techniques achieved enduring success and which have not survived into contemporary social criticism. While such class activity is standard in the English degree, the way the content relates to social issues is always surprising.

As examples, in Othello we discussed whether racist views are inherently motivating; in Much Ado About Nothing, we investigated the consequences of failing to listen to and protect victims; in Hamlet, much of the Freudian psychology used in the past century is unpacked from within the title character; and in Henry V, themes of nationalism had us thinking about what makes someone follow a leader and what creates or legitimizes authority in the first place. One of the most important topics studied is the form, function, and focus of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, which is helpful even to those who have no interest in literary criticism. Creative writers, theater-goers, and readers of almost any genre could benefit from taking any of the University’s classes that involve Shakespeare, from English to the Theater department.

Philosophy and Shakespeare – Makayla Newman

Philosophy and Shakespeare go hand in hand. While this may not seem obvious to the casual reader or the stereotypical high school student, Shakespeare both has strong philosophical stances and wrote famous literary works that can be analyzed through philosophical ideals. In 1817, William Hazlitt claimed that Shakespeare “was as good a philosopher as he was a poet.” Shakespeare has strong philosophical stances and wrote them into his plays. His play Much Ado About Nothing has been considered by some scholars as a direct response to Niccolo Machiavelli, whose writings are the beginning of political science. Hamlet and Macbeth both ask questions about what it even means for something to be true or good, and what it means for human action and creation to mimic good ideals. This concept is the idea of humanism, which is the Renaissance movement that the goodness of a person is not based on divinity or their body, but their morals and reactions to situations. This is evident in many of his plays. For example, in Merchant of Venice, it is evident that characters are more complex based off their actions and intentions, seen in Shylock and Portia. This is also evident in Othello, in that throughout the play he acknowledges he can just be seen as a Moor, how the his outside self is seen, but what is important is his actions. Shakespeare also uses the opportunity to present his philosophical ideals in theatre, to show potential discomfort with the extent of antisemitism, xenophobia, and other societal ills at the time. Thus, his ideals are presented in a way that makes his audience think about the potential stances he takes on issues of his time.