Even at 450, Shakespeare's 'rich tapestry' remains relevant

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Had William Shakespeare discovered the Fountain of Youth and avoided the stabbings and poisonings to which he so frequently subjected his characters, the "Bard of Avon" would have reached the ripe old age of 450 this year.

Even after four and a half centuries, Shakespeare looms large in our world. His works are studied by scholars and students across the globe and his plays are performed in high school auditoriums and turned into movies on the big screen.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of English is celebrating Shakespeare's enduring legacy in its second annual Mendota Seminar for alumni and friends this weekend.

Assistant Professor of English Joshua Calhoun shows students from a rare book from Memorial Library's Department of Special Collections. (Photo by Kevin Boettcher, Department of English) Assistant Professor of English Joshua Calhoun shows students a rare book from Memorial Library's Department of Special Collections. (Photo by Kevin Boettcher, Department of English)

Joshua Calhoun, an assistant professor of English who teaches English 431 How to Kill a King: Reading, Writing, & History in Shakespeare, will deliver the seminar's opening lecture on "Shakespeare at 450." Calhoun and nine students will also share some of the rare Shakespearean publications in Memorial Library's Department of Special Collections with seminar participants on Saturday, before joining the group for a field trip to see the American Players Theatre's production of Much Ado About Nothing.

L&S caught up with Calhoun to discuss Shakespeare's continued hold on our minds. An edited transcript of that interview follows.

Q: Shakespeare died nearly 400 years ago. What is it about his works that have made such a long-lasting impact?
A: "First of all, it's word play and the language. There are times I'm reading a play and I see something exciting and I think, 'Did I skip this scene every time I read it? How did I not see this before?' Or a student will say, 'Well what about this?' It's such a rich tapestry, it's so nuanced that there's always something new to find."

Q: How have his poems and plays remained relevant over the years?
A: "He asks questions; he doesn't give answers. He puts people in situations where you get to watch them play out and, unlike a lot of artists from his own time and from our time, he doesn't try to use art to teach morals, necessarily. But he does use art to set up moral quandaries and leaves us to puzzle them out. That means that he becomes relevant in so many different situations."

Q: How does he continue to influence pop culture?
A: "There's this sense that it's not OK to not know Shakespeare. I think one reason he's in popular culture is also because people think it sounds sophisticated to reference him. That's why you get all these references to Romeo and Juliet in popular songs and you're thinking, 'No, no, no, no, you don't want to be like Romeo and Juliet.'"

Q: Do you have a favorite Shakespearean character?
A: "I do. It's an unlikely character. It's not Hamlet or King Lear or somebody like that. It's Lady Percy, the wife of Hotspur in Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. I like her for two reasons. One, she's a perfect example of how Shakespeare can give stunning depth to characters who speak small amounts of lines. They seem to be props that the bigger characters are using and moving around, and then they speak these powerful lines that cut to the heart of things. And once her husband dies, in the midst of loss and grief, rather than fading, she finds her voice and she speaks truth to power in a way that's really uncomfortable and, at the same time, just absolutely inspiring to me."

Q: If Shakespeare were around today, what would he say about our world?
A: "I can say one thing with certainty: he'd be irate about England’s loss to Italy in the World Cup. Other than that, it's really hard to know what Shakespeare would say about anything, because what he says, he says through characters. We never quite know where he stands on social and political and religious issues. He seemed to be really good at figuring out how the world worked and how people worked, and there's this broad understanding of humanity. Give me a choice between sitting on the Terrace, having a beer with Will Shakespeare today and sitting on the Terrace, with or without a beer, reading a rediscovered play by him, and I'll take the play every time. He understood people. Put us in airplanes, give us iPads, and we're still the same characters that Shakespeare wrote about."