Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt shares his first encounters with Shakespeare as a young student

Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt knows a lot about Shakespeare. He’s the author of “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,” and he came to the Folger Shakespeare Library this spring to participate in a research conference on “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography.” But Greenblatt did not immediately latch on to the Bard in his student days. As he put it recently in an interview with the Harvard Gazette:

I was no child prodigy. In fact, I encountered “As You Like It” in Miss Gillespie’s eighth-grade class — and it seemed like the worst, most boring thing I ever read in my life. I can still remember the shudder with which I received the words “Sweet my coz, be merry.” I just didn’t get it at all. So it’s not like I awakened as a child to the wonders of Shakespeare.

Stephen Greenblatt
Stephen Greenblatt at the “Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, April 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Later in the Q&A, we learn which Shakespeare plays Greenblatt would rather have studied in middle school, how videos can make a difference in the English classroom, and at what moment the Bard was reclaimed in Greenblatt’s imagination.

What follows is an excerpt; for the full interview, visit the Harvard Gazette.

Q: That junior high school experience with Shakespeare. Was that your first?

A: It must have been my first. Why a junior high school teacher would have chosen “As You Like It,” that most sophisticated of pastoral comedies, to inflict on pubescent boys — or girls — is beyond me.

Q: What would you have chosen?

A: That’s a good question. Hmmm. The traditional choice would have been “Julius Caesar,” which I think is certainly better than “As You Like It,” though still very difficult to come to grips with imaginatively. Maybe “Macbeth,” maybe “Romeo and Juliet.”

Q: How about “The Tempest”?

A: Perhaps. In any case, these were the days before a teacher could show videos. It would have made a huge difference to give students an idea of what it could possibly sound or look like. I remember feeling completely baffled by the opacity of the language. If I had seen the wrestling match at the start of “As You Like It” I might well have gotten it.

Q: But — not to belabor Shakespeare — at what moment was he reclaimed in your imagination?

A: Not so long afterwards, in what must have been my senior year in high school, my gifted teacher, John Harris, centered a whole semester on a single work, “King Lear.” At a certain point he said he didn’t understand something quite crucial in the play. I had never heard a teacher saying he didn’t understand anything about anything and that made a very deep impression on me. The license to recognize that something is eluding you, and that you’re forced to grapple with it — not to take flight, but to wrestle with the angel — seemed to me crucial. From that moment on — though I did not decide I was going to be an English professor — I saw that there was something for me.

Read the rest of the interview at The Harvard Gazette.


  • We have all learned an enormous amount from Professor Greenblatt. One regret for me is that he continues to demean those who do not accept the traditional Shakespeare authorship theory. Such a stance is unworthy of such a distinguished scholar. It violates the ideals of academic inquiry, and of academic freedom. Instead, it illustrates the observations of Irving Janis about the destructive effects of groupthink, when a shaky premise is supported by attacks on those who question it with contradictory evidence.

    In any event, I was pleased when Professor Greenblatt wrote me a few days after the Folger conference to say, “I was not in fact for a moment suggesting [in his 2005 letter to the New York Times] that Oxfordians were somehow the moral equivalent of Holocaust deniers…I very much regret my Holocaust example, I had meant it only to call into question in the sharpest terms the apparent difference between the NY Times’ treatment of scientific consensus and its treatment of historical consensus. But I had not reflected — as I should have — that Oxfordians might draw the implication that I was likening THEM to a particularly abhorrent group. As I say, that was not at all my intention. It would never have occurred to me in fact because I regard the denial of Shakespeare’s authorship as a simple mistake, while I regard the denial of the Holocaust as an instance of moral bankruptcy and intellectual bad faith. I apologize for any distress I may have inadvertently caused.”

    I dwell on this point at such length because the ad hominem attacks on authorship skeptics do no credit to Shakespeare scholars, and they should stop.

    Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Faculty Expert on Shakespeare for Media Contacts,
    Georgetown University

  • I would note that Professor Greenblatt admired his high school instructor for having the integrity and humility to say he did not understand some feature of the Shakespeare play King Lear. As a critical historian, it is incumbent upon him today and all who are committed to intellectual honesty to apply the same standards of truth to the biography of the Stratford-born attributed author as we do to any other historical figure. Why is there absolutely no data indicating William Shakspere of Stratford wished to be, worked at being, or achieved the skills and knowledge of a practicing writer? If such materials were lacking in any other biography, the very lack would be grounds for questioning the mainly legendary belief that he wrote anything at all, never mind the outstanding oeuvre in English history.

    Greenblatt’s double-talk about not realizing Oxfordians might take offense at being typed with Holocaust deniers is silly and cowardly to go along with the sloppy academic perspective about the Shakespeare biography. The function of intellect is to seek the truth and unmask faulty beliefs posing as truth, not to brush off sincere and informed attempts at real inquiry. That is, if the intellectual involved has the integrity of Greenblatt’s inspiring instructor.

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