I recently had the incredible opportunity to interview Jeffrey R. Wilson Ph.D., a professor in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the Why Shakespeare? course as a first-year writing seminar. Additionally, I was able to shadow his course before the interview, which was truly amazing in witnessing a college-level English course, let alone one focused on my favorite subject, Shakespeare. In the class, Professor Wilson provided an engaging and interactive lecture coupled with a fun acting exercise of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. Learning alongside passionate students and a learned professor was truly fascinating. We discussed his upcoming book, Shakespeare and Trump, which will be available on April 20th, his background leading up to his current position, his class, and, of course, his thoughts on the Bard and his works.
Wilson’s work, focused on the intersections between Renaissance literature and modern sociology, has appeared in academic journals such as Genre, College Literature, Shakespeare, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, Law and the Humanities, Disability Studies Quarterly, Early Modern Literary Studies, Literary Imagination, and Crime, Media, Culture, as well as public venues such as National Public Radio, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Profession, Academe, Public Seminar, The Smart Set, The Spectator USA, CounterPunch, and Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory.
When were you first introduced to Shakespeare, did you read any of his works in high school?
I was assigned [his] works in high school. I’m sure I didn’t read any of them. I was not the best high school student, so I had kind of a ho-hum high school career.
What was your educational background, especially in relation to Shakespeare?
I grew up in Kansas and didn’t get into any colleges or universities when I applied around Kansas, so I went to community college out in San Diego, did a year of community college, and one year back at the University of Kansas. California has this amazing public higher education system, wherein community colleges, if you make certain marks, you are guaranteed admittance to a certain state school system. So, I went to Mesa Community College, and I ended up getting my Bachelor’s Degree from San Diego State University.
Then, I went to the University of California at Irvine for my Ph.D., and the year that I was graduating from Irvine, President Obama was speaking on campus. I wrote to him and availed my story as the poster child of California public education to him– he passed.
I was going in the direction of music and music production, and then the summer before my senior year, I had a really bad experience in the music industry, and that kind of turned me off to that. The very next semester, I had the most amazing Milton course at SDSU with a fellow named Peter Herman, and that opened my eyes to these amazing things that you can do with literature. I got really excited by that, and so, my last semester at SDSU, I probably read my first Shakespeare play. I then ended up going to Irvine to study with a Miltonist there.
I don’t know if I should be saying this, but my first love and my enduring love when I want to read really good literature is Milton. But Shakespeare is really, really amazing for centuries-long cultural conversations, which is what I care the most about.
We can talk with people who lived four hundred years ago and Shakespeare, just by virtue of his popularity, gives us a platform for doing that. I got really excited by that and had the most amazing Shakespeare scholar that trained me at Irvine named Julia Lupton.
Both of them [Peter Herman and Julia Lupton] have been really supportive and followed my career with interest and enthusiasm.
Why do you enjoy studying/teaching it?
I’m not the kind of super-enthusiastic lover of Shakespeare that a lot of people are. I’m much more interested in Shakespeare as an opportunity for us to do intellectual history. I used to say I’m agnostic to the quality of the literature. I think maybe doing so much of it has brought me around to liking it a lot more than I initially did.
I initially saw Shakespeare as an opportunity to think through how we, as a society, have changed over the past four hundred years by people constantly watching Shakespeare, reading Shakespeare, and responding to Shakespeare, and using that as a touchstone to be able to say here are some of the things that have happened in this big-scale history of English culture, of American culture. Shakespeare seems to be everywhere and seems to be a good way to do that.
I think both your upcoming book and class really speak to this— why is or why should Shakespeare’s works be relevant today?
I spend a lot of time in my class explaining that I’m not really interested in the “why should” questions, so I will never be arguing that the world will be better if we just read more Shakespeare.
The “why is” Shakespeare question fascinates me, though, and I could talk about that forever because I don’t know the answer to it. I always tell students in the Why Shakespeare? class that as soon as I do know the answer, I probably won’t be interested in teaching the class anymore.
It’s amazing to me that we’ve been working on this class for seven years, and we haven’t gotten to the bottom of the case yet. We don’t know “Why Shakespeare” in a large sense.
We know why Shakespeare surfaces in a number of different cultures in specific settings, but trying to answer the big “Why Shakespeare” question and wrestle with the implications of that is something that at least I haven’t cracked. I don’t know if coming up with a big unified answer to that question is something that will be beneficial to us anyway. But it has been the most generative topic of getting a whole bunch of extremely intelligent Harvard students coming from thirty different backgrounds that are all able to find themselves in a Shakespeare cultural reception in one way or another. It [the class and overarching question] then gives you thirty different perspectives on Shakespeare that you never thought about before, and that, to me, is the most fascinating thing.
What is the format of your class and what do you think is most effective in teaching young people about Shakespeare?
I teach a writing class that has a Shakespeare theme to it, so our focus is on writing academic essays. I remember when I started here, the Harvard brass asked me if I would teach Hamlet every semester, and I said absolutely not because you need seven weeks to teach Hamlet and we’re going to be talking about how to write essays as opposed to digging into the text and history of Hamlet.
When I eventually put Hamlet on the syllabus, I came to discover that Hamlet doesn’t need Jeff Wilson. Hamlet has been doing just fine by itself for four hundred years, so I almost teach nothing about the text. I teach very little snippets of arguments that you could do as a model for finding the ideas that you care about in Hamlet. For example, I’m really interested in ideas of social performance, and I get obsessed with those and can find those in Hamlet, but other people who are interested in their obsessions can find those different obsessions in Hamlet. I try to encourage people to really dig into their perspective and what makes you unique as an individual. I think the only way that we’re going to say new things about Shakespeare, about Hamlet, is by embracing the perspectives that we bring that four hundred years of Shakespeare scholars haven’t had because they are ours and ours alone.
Have you seen a change or a shift in how students respond to writing about Shakespeare or how they perceive Shakespeare’s works in your time teaching this class?
The biggest change in my time teaching this class is that a few years before I got here in 2010 or so, Harvard started to take having a diverse student a little bit more seriously, which was aspirational around 2010 and is much more real now. Now, we have students coming from a lot of different backgrounds, and that brings certain challenges: students who have had different levels of training, students who come from different quality of schools, and so forth.
But [diversity] also brings just immense, immense resources of people who have had different experiences that are all coming together to meet in the context of Shakespeare. Shakespeare can bring those different experiences to bear.
This semester, I had a student in my class from the LA Unified School District for the first time. I taught students at CSU Long Beach out there before I came to Harvard, and most of my students were from LA Unified and had been pretty much systematically been failed by LA Unified School District, so we had to grapple with that a lot. We do have some of those students here, and for us to be able to learn from them and to hear their conversations in class makes Harvard a much stronger place.
Shakespeare and Trump: Shakespeare provides ample examples in his plays of the ability of power to absolutely corrupt— Julius Cesar, Macbeth, Lear, Richard III— how do you use these as a basis for comparison in your books?
Shakespeare uniquely grappled with power and how power is used among some of the more canonical authors in the English and Western canon. Shakespeare cares about the head of the state, which not everyone does, with good reason. You have someone like Chaucer or Dante, and they care about the relationship between humans and the divine, or Milton, who cares about the divine. Dickens, who cares about society, and Austen cares about high society and interrelations there. Shakespeare seems obsessed with monarchy, and I always say that means Shakespeare shouldn’t be relevant to the 21st century, and yet, here we are.
There has been this massive discourse over the past four years, especially of bringing Shakespeare into relation with current events, especially politics, which is weird because it forces us to think about why someone who was obsessed with monarchy relevant to what is going on in 2020 in America. I think the short answer is that the nature of our politics has taken a turn toward the monarchical.
Donald Trump, with his petulant personality, massive wealth, and penchant for making decisions based on knee-jerk emotions of the day, throws us back into a little bit of a style of Shakespearean monarchical politics.
It seems to me that even though Shakespeare shouldn’t be relevant to democratic politics, he is. We need to grapple with that, and wrestling with those analogies that happen between Shakespearean characters and politicians helps us think through and better understand what’s going on in our society, which, to me, is much more important than celebrating the beauty of Shakespeare.
I think using Shakespeare as a tool —an instrument to learn about life today— is something that fascinates me much more.
Do you see yourself writing more books about Shakespeare’s works? If so, about what?
I was just talking with a friend yesterday, and we decided that the sequel will be Chaucer and Klobuchar.
I think that the Shakespeare and Trump book was written very fast, and I wasn’t exactly dying to write this book, but based on some of my earlier work, I was well-positioned to write it.
It grows out of a couple of places. One is that it grows out of some work I’ve done under a project called, “Shakespeare and Criminology,” which is thinking about how crime happens and how justice is served in a modern setting in the context of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which are all about crimes happening and justice trying to be administered, and, often, it doesn’t go well. The idea was that we can use modern criminology and modern theories of criminology to explain what happens in Shakespeare’s plays, and, more importantly, we can use Shakespeare to think through modern issues of crime and justice. The logic or methodology of the Shakespeare and Trump book was in place for that, and these new events started happening in politics that the logic applied to.
Even though I have these older projects that are much more scholarly and build the logic for that methodology, they were available as a lens for me to look at these events that were happening rapidly right before our eyes.
The book came out of a public lecture I was asked to do, where I went and I said I’ll tell you five stories tonight. I finished that lecture and realized five stories, that’s five chapters, I probably better write this thing up.
How and when do you see the interdisciplinary study of Shakespeare being applicable?
It happens in a number of different ways that are all fascinating to me. The most dominant paradigm is Shakespeareans who read scholarship from other disciplines and think about how we can apply that to understand Shakespeare, and that is fascinating to read.
What is more exciting, to me, is the prospect of how someone who is not a Shakespearean can use Shakespeare as a lens through which to look at their discipline. So, someone who’s a sociologist, as opposed to doing a sociological reading of Shakespeare, does a Shakespearean reading of sociology. That idea I frame under the rubric of Shakespeare for theory, which is to say, as opposed to taking cultural theory and using it to interpret Shakespeare, we take Shakespeare and build new theory out of it that might have the possibility of explaining events that are happening in the present and future.
What are your thoughts on movies based on Shakespeare— do you have a favorite?
My favorite Shakespeare play is Richard III, and so we did House of Cards growing off of that. It was the fall of 2016, and so I put Richard III and House of Cards on the syllabus because it was the election season, and I thought that everyone was going to want to talk about politics. Then the election came along and happened, and nobody wanted to talk about politics.
And so, teaching House of Cards in that moment was fascinating because it helped us build a bridge from our situation in modern life, specifically in respect to technology, back to Shakespeare’s plays. House of Cards updates Richard III in a fascinating way not because it makes Shakespeare’s monarchical politics into democratic politics, but because it takes Shakespeare’s early modern play that was written on manuscript parchment and transforms it into a digital product.
In Shakespeare’s Richard II, the audience has this very tricky relationship with Richard, where he is a charismatic guy but also a horrible villain. We seem to love him at the start of the play, and, then, we get roped into his ruse and have this intimate relationship with him because he speaks to us, charms us, and is hilarious. But then he starts killing children, and we have to figure out how to negotiate this intimacy we once had with this horrible person.
House of Cards updates that in a fascinating way because it puts it on Netflix, and Netflix has this mechanism of making you watch the next episode without clicking a button. This complicity you see in Richard III shows up in House of Cards, where we fall in love with this show and are not really thinking about what we’re doing. This character, Frank Underwood, we fall in love with him, and, similar to Richard III, we have to negotiate what happens when he becomes a horrible person.
Do you see any issues or limitations in Shakespeare’s writing in the time period, common-held thoughts about gender, race, etc.
Absolutely, Shakespeare was a man of his time, and I think a lot of us wrestle with a tension between Shakespeare being a very humanistic and empathetic writer who was sensitive and cared about people’s humanity and squaring that with the clear cases of racism and sexism that you see in his plays, from Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Hamlet.
The way that I think about it is that the argument that Shakespeare was an unsalvageable misogynist is as equally unfulfilling as the argument that Shakespeare was a proto-feminist. I think Shakespeare was someone who sought to explore the humanity of several different characters, especially people who didn’t come from backgrounds that he came from. Yet, still, there are some biases that are pretty detectable and demonstrable. In Hamlet, women speak eight percent of the lines and are two characters out of thirty-one characters.
I think that trying to square that situation is tricky, but it also provides a lens for us to look at modern life in instances where you have individuals, institutions, or corporations that have egalitarian principles and aspirations but also might themselves have some unconscious biases that problematize their efforts and aspirations.
What are your thoughts on the theories of William Shakespeare being a pseudonym for possibly several authors?
The authorship controversy is fascinating. There’s the initial response that most Shakespeare scholars will rightly give, which is that a lot of that is not very valid and that the authorship controversies are filled with classism of people saying that Shakespeare, someone from a working-class background, could never have written those beautiful plays, which isn’t very compelling.
But the Shakespeare scholars’ resistance to the authorship controversy has come into tension recently in fascinating ways with this computer-aided scholarship that is showing us that, in all likelihood, Shakespeare collaborated on at least ten of his plays. We need to think about how Shakespeare not only collaborated with other people but also was collaborating with the authors of his sources, Elizabethan theater-makers, the people who were getting these plays up on their feet. So, to me, the hostility that Shakespeare scholars show to authorship controversy jars a little bit with the openness we need to show with this new research showing interesting collaboration and co-authorship.
What is your favorite Shakespeare play and why? (comedy, tragedy?)
I think I will go with my heart here and say Much Ado About Nothing because it is the play that my spouse and I have experienced together the most, and we see ourselves in that play. That is a play that I enjoy on an emotional, visceral level more than others that I tend to engage with on an analytical level. Much Ado About Nothing is fun and such a good story, so I have fond memories attached to that.
Analytically, I really like Hamlet. I think it’s fascinating that I’ve been teaching this Why Shakespeare? course for seven years and each student writes an essay about Hamlet each semester, and I’ve never read the same Hamlet essay twice. I don’t know quite how that works, but it does when you kind of, as we’ve talked about, encouraged people to embrace their situated perspective in the world and find themselves in Hamlet. I’ve heard so many different perspectives on this text and it’s not exhausted yet, and that’s been a real joy to see.
Favorite character? Favorite villain?
Richard III. There’s just so much complexity there within the text. There is so much comedy and tragedy. There’s so much pain and suffering as well as evil and villainy, and thinking that out is the thing that kind of drew me to Shakespeare in the first place both in terms of how it works within the play and in terms of how it works in the four hundred plus years of criticism and receptions of Richard III. Why is Richard III, this physically deformed medieval king, such as touchstone, such a prominent figure in English history?
I think the experiences that Richard has in the text because of his experience with physical deformity and stigma as well as the experience that we as the audience, as readers, have with the text in trying to negotiate our relationship with Richard III captures a lot of what life is about: trying to negotiate a world in which there are interpretations of you that are coming from every direction and carving out a little bit of space to shape your own life. That text captures it for me.
What are your thoughts on Shakespeare’s sonnets?
The sonnets are amazing. I have to do a bit on Valentine’s Day in any Shakespeare course saying to be very cautious because Shakespeare is highly skeptical about the possibility of romantic love if that’s what you’re looking for your beloved.
But the sonnets, as a sequence, show such a deep commitment to drama in the way that they’re told that they’re not all that different from the plays. You’ve got this heightened, stylized language and a big symbolic punch of literature with a sonnet that is then packaged into this ongoing, evolving story. Shakespeare’s plays have so much poetry in them, and Shakespeare’s poems have so much drama in them. You see him going back and forth between those two genres.
Favorite Shakespeare-related literature?
The book that stands out to me a lot right now is Ewan Fernie’s book called Shakespeare for Freedom, which is interesting as an argument that Shakespeare has historically been a venue for discussions of freedom. Issues of freedom are all over his plays; issues of how much external social forces exert influence on our behavior versus how much our own individual willpower can control our destinies and the freedom that we have from society. Those are all over the plays, so Shakespeare becomes a venue for people, especially people who are not in power, to think about how to navigate this world.
Favorite play to teach?
The initial play that jumps out is Richard III. I think The Tempest is a favorite. The Tempest, to me, feels the most modern of Shakespeare’s plays. It seems like things that are going on there between Prospero and Miranda and Prospero and Caliban are speaking to very modern relationships. It was written at the end of Shakespeare’s life and shows a pretty mature perspective. A lot of Montanism in there, and we see that skeptical attitude, especially in Shakespeare’s late plays being open to question everything. And, of course, the reception of that play in its Caribbean afterlives and its American afterlives provides opportunities for us to connect the present with the past.
What other playwright do you think tackles similar themes or should be read with Shakespeare’s works as an interesting point of comparison?
The most obvious analog to Shakespeare is the ancient Greek tragedians, who are similarly concerned with heads of state and with national politics, drama, and how the individual drama relates to the social drama that occurs.
Also, I think, for me, John Milton’s poetry is just beautiful, visceral, and satisfying on that level. I can engage with Milton more in a sense of I will be a student of you, and you will teach me things, as opposed to with Shakespeare, it’s more I will be an analyst of you and describe what you do. So I love learning from Milton.