Is Shakespeare universal, or do we need him to be?

The Benton hosted a lively discussion on Friday, October 28, on the cultural, linguistic, and social legacies of Shakespeare's works. The discussion was moderated by Greg Semenza, an English professor at UConn; the featured panelists included Lindsay Cummings, a Theatre Studies professor at UConn, and Garrett Sullivan, an English professor from Penn State University.  (Akshara Thejaswi/The Daily Campus)

A panel of professors disciplined in drama, literature and history inspired a lively discussion about the legacy of William Shakespeare, the subject of discussion at The William Benton Museum of Art Friday evening.

The panel challenged themselves and those in attendance to answer questions about how so many always go back to Shakespeare in order to understand human nature in lieu of other monolithic contemporaries, such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson or Thomas Kyd. Why and how do people look to Shakespeare like a household name in order to understand human nature, 400 years after his death, instead of these remarkable and exceptional writers?

Themes such as jealousy, love, betrayal and power were woven into the conversation. Yet for this discussion, the ideas were addressed more critically. It wasn’t a talk about the generality of the aforementioned themes, but rather a more precise understanding of their uses as the specificity could detract from the idea of universality. Love in this discussion was spoken about as infatuation (after all, how long did it take for Romeo to fall in love with Juliet?). In addition, jealously was spoken of as pathological jealously and power in terms of ambition and manipulation behind its acquisition.

The panel included Greg Semenza, professor of English at UConn, Dr. Lindsay Cummings, associate professor of theatre studies and Garret Sullivan, professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. The idea that was honed in on was universality in the themes seen in The Bard’s breadth of work, but it isn’t entirely agreed upon. The themes are precise and take on a different form when looked at critically, detracting from the universality.

There is historical context to consider as well, which informs both the narratives of his plays as well as the language. Still though there existed the strong notion expressed by the panelists who connect Shakespeare to our lives today in universal terms and his mountain range of talent. This was mentioned in the discussion about the longevity of Shakespeare brought up by Garret Sullivan, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.

“I’m interested in the ways Shakespeare continually becomes the site of cultural struggle,” panelist Garret Sullivan said. His particular endeavor for academia focuses on British efforts in film production during World War II to combat the Nazi propaganda machine, who were trying to use Shakespeare against Britain in their propaganda.

“Shakespeare was writing at the dawn of the modern period. When we look to Shakespeare’s plays, we find him asking questions about what the modern world may look like. What happens when Europeans meet non-Europeans? What happens when Christians interact with Jews? What happens when Africans appear in Europe? He is asking questions about how different peoples are going to react to each other. Are they going to learn from each other or destroy each other? He is asking about early capitalist enterprise, or early colonialism. Also in the New World, how will men and women interact with one another, how will brothers and sisters relate to one another? We can go to Shakespeare to see the beginnings of our New World, but also what it is going to look like,” said Clare King’oo, an associate professor in English.

Shakespeare’s work was consumed en-masse in his time. In fact, theatre has a history of largely being a construct for the poor- a complete 180 to what the state of commercial theatre is now. One can’t just walk into a production of “Hamilton,” without paying upwards of a hundred, or two hundred dollars six months in advance for respectable seating. The same goes for a straight play of quality production, whereupon one could walk into Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and occupy standing room for next to nothing. To this end, the universality of Shakespeare begins to pale in our contemporary era as it is not accessible anywhere near how it had been in the Elizabethan era.

“What is most relevant to me in these discussions is the idea of Shakespeare not really having an obvious axe to grind, that Shakespeare always offers us multiple perspectives on a given issue. Even his most villainous characters in some way have an ability to create some empathy within us for them. Not in every case, there are some absolute demons in Shakespeare, but you never have a clear polemical edge, he is always providing you multiple perspectives on an issue. That is what makes him continually relevant to each generation. I don’t know if I would call that universality, I would call that a way in which it lends itself to ongoing adaptation for each new cultural moment,” George Moore, a Ph.D. Student at the University of Connecticut, said.


Matthew Gilbert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.gilbert@uconn.edu. He tweets @wickedlouddude.