Shakespeare and the practical humanities: The anniversary of a genius

Shakespeare and the practical humanities: The anniversary of a genius

By Ian Smith
Professor of English at Lafayette College

April 23, 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the death of the most iconic and celebrated author in English, William Shakespeare. In the 25 years leading up to 1616, Shakespeare produced a body of work during an era of international commerce that opened England and Europe to Africa, Southeast Asia and the Americas. Spices, silks and precious metals became part of a trading network that enriched investors and influenced taste in foreign goods.

The world was changing, not just in the commercial possibilities that influenced class demarcations, but also in the kinds of encounters initiated between Englishmen and foreign persons who were different in appearance and language spoken, leading to a heightened awareness of cultural and racial identity. This was also the period of burgeoning European imperialism, which meant that commercial investments would include the sale of persons, especially blacks as servants and later slaves.

Women struggled and strategized to assert their agency and limited rights to ownership while actors and those associated with the practice of theater were stigmatized and regarded as marginal. The genius that we attribute to Shakespeare did not ignore the social and global transformations taking place. Any anniversary recognition must consider the playwright’s confrontation of these issues as his enduring legacy in the modern world.

Typically, celebratory attention is paid to Shakespeare’s enormous impact on the English language, his works, with the exception of the Bible, the most widely cited. We pay homage to his writing when we try to “break the ice” (“The Taming of the Shrew”) in awkward situations or refer to a “foregone conclusion” (“Othello”). Novels like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (“The Tempest”), Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mister Ripley” (“Macbeth”), and Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” (“King Lear”) bear his inspiration. Film adaptations have kept his works alive in the cinematic marketplace for a broader cross-section of audiences. And Shakespeare has been coopted by the world of pop culture and advertising to sell anything from chocolate, clothing and beer to cough medicine.

However, in the current debates about the role of the humanities in the academy, the Shakespeare of his time—the global, political Shakespeare—is the Shakespeare for our time. Through this supreme figure we can engage students in the practical humanities committed to interrogating the real world and posing the vital questions about immigration, commerce, race, gender, class, sexuality, economics, ageing, religion, military intervention and political authority, among others. If his genius is declared endless, so are the timely questions a practical, modern Shakespeare continues to help us fathom.