Syracuse University Magazine

Honoring the Bard

Honoring the Bard

As the world marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Professor Dympna Callaghan reflects on his life and times and the lasting impact of his work

“Shakespeare is simultaneously entirely a product of his time and invariably ahead of it, and indeed ahead of our time, so that some new dimensions of Shakespeare studies may strike us as having always been present in Shakespeare’s language, embedded in the fabric of his composition and lying dormant to await the momentous occasion of ‘discovery.’”
—From Shakespeare in Our Time: A Shakespeare Association of America Collection
Edited by Dympna Callaghan and Suzanne Gossett

Famously, he wrote: “All the world’s a stage…” And although more than four centuries have passed since William Shakespeare dwelled among its players here, that entire world seemed to come together to commemorate the anniversary of his death in April 2016, marking the occasion with everything from performances and processions to posters and parades. For Shakespeare scholar Dympna Callaghan, this year’s global celebration of the Bard of Avon presented new opportunities to share her understanding of his life and times and her passion for his work. “This year’s celebration demonstrates just how much we still have to learn from Shakespeare and how much we can engage with his language,” says Callaghan, the William L. Safire Professor of Modern Letters in the College of Arts and Sciences.

A former president of the Shakespeare Association of America (2012-13), Callaghan has published widely on the playwrights and poets of the English Renaissance and has held fellowships at the Folger, Huntington, and Newberry libraries, the Getty Research Center in Los Angeles, and the Bogliasco Center for Arts and Humanities in Liguria, Italy. She is the author of several books about Shakespeare, including Hamlet: Language and Writing (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015) and A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare (Wiley-Blackwell, 2nd edition, 2016), and co-editor of Shakespeare in Our Time (Bloomsbury, 2106), a volume prepared on behalf of the Shakespeare Association of America to commemorate the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. “For me, Shakespeare represents the ways in which the values of humanities education are self-evident,” she says. “You need imagination, inspiration, and the capacity to use language, to discuss philosophical ideas, and to use books as a way of engaging with the past, but also with contemporary concerns. And still, nobody can out-think or out-write Shakespeare. He’s always going to win. Which I love.”

Callaghan spoke with Syracuse University Magazine associate editor Amy Speach, sharing her appreciation for and understanding of Shakespeare’s legacy.

Professor CallaghanHow did your journey as a Shakespeare scholar take shape?
It began at school. I read A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was 12, sitting under this picture of Shakespeare. And later, when I did what we call O-levels in Britain, we went to see Henry IV, Part I at the Grand Theatre in Leeds. It was such a magnificent occasion. I had been reading the play for school, but I really loved seeing it come alive. I loved the language, but I was amazed that the language could work even in the theater. I found it so exciting and incredible, and I loved the battle scenes. It really was a fabulous performance. And the chap who played Prince Hal subsequently became one of the James Bonds, so there was an attraction built in already!

I like the language of the early modern period in general. I like the writers of this period. I’m very interested in literature, including contemporary literature, especially contemporary American literature. But I really love early modern writing—I love the cadences of early modern English. It’s just such a great period. There were so many fantastic writers from that period. It really is the flowering of art and literature in England, rather belatedly, much later than the rest of Europe.

I think that’s what drew me in. I like poetry. I like plays. And you can do all of those things. It’s the beginning of fictional prose writing, too. So there are lots of things that begin in that period. But it’s not medieval. It’s more like “us” than like “them.” And I like that kind of transitional moment as well.

What kind of research on Shakespeare did you do while on leave last year?
I was at the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California, which has incredible resources in terms of Shakespeare’s works and a secondary collection of critical materials. There are also acres and acres of amazing gardens.

While I was there, I gave a lecture, “Murder Most Foul,” for donors to the library. I also gave a conference paper there and a seminar paper. And the rest of the time I was in the library doing research for the book I’m now writing, which is called Reading Shakespeare’s Poetry.  

I was asked to write this book because many people read the plays and not the poems. I had written a book on the sonnets already with the same publisher. The thing people often don’t realize as fully as we might, is that most of Shakespeare’s writing is in the form of verse. It’s poetry. There is dramatic verse and non-dramatic verse, and I’m interested in both.

In Shakespeare’s poetry, you’ve got a new, relatively recent phenomena of print culture. So instead of poems being read aloud, as they would have been when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, poems are being read. So, something like Sonnets, which was published in 1609, is a visual artifact. It’s something people are reading silently to themselves, getting a mental impression of the verse, rather than simply something they hear. And that really changes the nature of poetry in some very significant ways.

I’m also interested in this boundary between poetry and prose, and between poetry and song. And I’m interested in it because I think Shakespeare was interested in those divisions, too.

There’s a wonderful “song” in Cymbeline. You probably even have heard it: “Golden lads and girls all must,/ As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” But it’s possibly not sung, because the actors immediately before that lyric, say, “Well, you know, we can’t sing. We’re the kind of people who can’t sing.” So we don’t know if it’s spoken or sung. It’s a moment out of the play, moving away from blank verse into something rhymed. And it is kind of set off as a lyrical moment, situated somewhere between speech and song.

Those are interesting moments, for me, about how Shakespeare uses language. I’m interested in the way Shakespeare absorbed the poetry of the ancient world and the way he was interested in and influenced by other writers of his time. And I’m interested in the distinction between singing, speech, and narrative poems.

And I’m reading the sonnets, which are really scandalous. Everyone thinks the sonnets are really respectable, but they’re not. The first part of the sonnets is addressed to a young man, and the first poem threatens him with death if he doesn’t get about the business of reproduction, and calls him a miser. At the very end of the sonnets, after the sonnets to the woman colored ill, or the Dark Lady as she is popularly known, are a couple of sonnets about venereal disease.

So I’m trying to do detailed readings of these poems as well as really trying to understand in a more general way what poetics meant for Shakespeare.


A mime artist walks the streets of Stratford-upon-Avon as Shakespeare's ghost.

One of your books is titled Who Was William Shakespeare? What is the answer?
It’s not a book that questions that Shakespeare was really Shakespeare. I always assume that. But my students always ask me. And for a long time I used to say, “You just can’t ask that question. That’s the one question I will not allow.” Then I realized that my students teach me so much, and that I was losing a huge opportunity to explain to them who Shakespeare really was. I could explain Shakespeare’s life, how he was a product of his time and of a wonderful grammar school education that is on a par with a very good university education now. And also, how he was exceptional—how in so many ways he did the ordinary things that everybody did, but that somehow his capacity for language raised him above everybody else.

I also explain in the book [Who Was William Shakespeare? An Introduction to His Life and Works (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)] that nobody at the time thought he would have been as famous or more famous than Queen Elizabeth I. Nobody. Because the thing that counted then was aristocracy, nobility, blood. And Shakespeare barely managed to get himself—he bought for himself, bought for his father—a coat of arms, so he could be a gentleman. But he wasn’t a gentleman. He was a commoner.

Shakespeare image in frameI really wanted people to understand the social hierarchy of early modern England. When people misunderstand that, they think, “Oh, he must have been the Earl of Oxford.” Even though the Earl of Oxford was dead when Shakespeare was writing many of his plays! I also explain Shakespeare’s desire for a coat of arms. It was expensive. He had to go to the College of Heralds. You had to get your lineage approved, which in his case was quite dodgy.

He was somebody who was in this new industry: theater. A totally new thing—having a purpose-built theater. And he has to write quickly. He has to produce product. He’s got practical issues. People often think of Shakespeare in a frilly shirt sitting around waiting for the muse to descend. That is not how it happened. He had to write on deadline. He really had to get things out so there would be enough product for the theater. And he’s a canny businessman. He wants to make money. And he wants social status. That’s why he goes back to Stratford, buys a big house called New Place, and spends his retirement years there. Because that’s what concerns him.

He wants to provide financial security for himself. But being associated with the theater was not at the time a particularly respectable position. He makes money, and that always helps with respectability, but nobody thinks he’s as important as anybody in the nobility. Not at all.

So I tried to explain that, and I then go through most of the plays and try to show in each instance some connection with Shakespeare’s life. For instance, in King Lear, I point out that one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, Edmund, has the same name as Shakespeare’s brother. In Comedy of Errors, there are all these people with the same names, and in fact Shakespeare had two siblings with the same name because when one died they would use the same name for the next child.

I’m not saying he was writing autobiography. I’m just pointing out these connections with his life and times that are evidenced in each of the plays. And increasingly I’ve come to realize that people have the right to ask, “How did this person become the amazing writer that he was? And what kind of world did he come from?” To ask the question, to be interested in his identity, and how he became the writer he was, that’s perfectly legitimate.

In your current project with history professor Carol Faulkner, you’re examining the political significance of Hamlet during the Civil War. What excites you about this collaboration?
We’re really interested in Edwin Booth, one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of all time, because he is the brother of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. And he was playing the title role in Hamlet while his brother was assassinating Lincoln. The fascinating thing about Shakespeare is that his work takes on new meanings depending on a given set of historical and political circumstances. So we’re honing in on this one moment in American history, and working together—a scholar of Shakespeare and a scholar of 19th-century U.S. history—to try to say something new about this acclaimed production of Hamlet and what it might have meant to the citizens of the U.S.

Both brothers were Shakespearean actors of some renown. And shortly before Lincoln’s assassination, they had acted together in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar in New York City to raise money for a statue of Shakespeare in Central Park. So think of Edwin Booth’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, who says he thinks that Lincoln will be king and goes and kills him. The reason the conspirators kill Julius Caesar is because they believe he wants to make himself king. Also, Hamlet’s dilemma is, “Should you kill a king?” So there is this dilemma about what to do with what’s perceived as inappropriate authority. And John Wilkes Booth perceived Lincoln as a usurper of legitimate authority.

Also, the theaters at that time were full of soldiers—people who were using Shakespeare’s plays, especially Hamlet, to think about their own circumstances in the Civil War and to process the trauma of the Civil War. Tragedy allows you to do that.

The idea that Carol and I could work together came about when I was writing my book on Hamlet. I contacted her with a query about the election that had just happened at the time of Lincoln’s assassination, because it’s not my period of history. Not even my continent. She had great suggestions. And she told me about a woman she had found called Mary Booth (no relation)—a feminist radical who was in New York [where Edwin Booth was playing Hamlet]. But she was too sick to go to the theater, so her friend, who went to the performances every night, would report to her about how Edwin performed.

Carol and I really enjoyed talking about it all. So we said, “We’ve got to write this. We’ve got to work on this together!” The research is still very much in process. But I just love working with a colleague who is interested in the same moment, the same time, and what happened. It’s great fun.

Shakespeare program title pageWhy do you love your work so much?
I’m interested in intellectual life. And I just love literature of all kinds. I’m fascinated: Why is it that we make stuff up? And we make stuff up that’s partly made from reality, partly complete invention. How does that happen at various historical moments? In the historical period I’m interested in, they were not very clear that “fictions,” as they called them, were a good idea. Their word for fiction was “poesie”—things that were made up.

Human beings tell a lot of stories, and they’re stories about actual histories—things that have actually happened, or partly happened, and are contorted or transformed by the effects of memory and variously limited or enhanced by powers of recollection. Or they are things that never happened.

Why do we do this? It’s just a really extraordinary and clearly a very important thing. It’s obviously hardwired. Human beings have been doing it since the dawn of time: making art, making stories. They shape our lives in really important ways. And they also speak not only to the external landscape—about the politics, economics, and social world that people live in—but also to the internal landscape of the psyche, of emotions, of love, of hatred.

It seems to me you get everything you could possibly be interested in—you get the whole package—in literary studies. And I’m interested in the past, because I think maybe you can see in a period that isn’t your own the factors in operation more clearly.

I’m also interested in how the stories of the past get reshaped, reused, and how they are still really important for the present—that we really know the past, that we don’t just forget it. One of the ways of keeping that interest is through not just the facts, but through the great acts of language, in English. And that’s inevitably Shakespeare.

What made Shakespeare so exceptional?
His capacity with language: He could just write really, really, really well. It’s not the story lines, which he pinched from other people most of the time—though he did make changes. But it’s the language—that’s what makes him distinct. It’s not what he says, but the way he says it: mesmerizingly intricate at times, incredibly lyrical and elevating at other times. He can take you through any emotional state.

Also, he’s accessible. There’s something for everybody there, and yet the language is so wonderfully powerful. It’s still, somehow, language that was accessible to everyone—to all kinds of people in his own day—and is still of real interest to all kinds of people now. «


Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London is a replica of the open-air plyahouse originally built in 1599.

From the Quill of Shakespeare:

“To be or not to be, that is the question.”

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

“If music be the food of love, play on.”
Twelfth Night

“Is this a dagger which I see before me…”

“There is a world elsewhere.”

“O, brave new world!”
The Tempest

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”
Julius Caesar

“This above all: to thine ownself be true.”

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“Why, then the world’s mine oyster.”
The Merry Wives of Windsor

“But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”
Julius Caesar

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”

“A little more than kin, and less than kind.”

“True is it that we have seen better days.”
As You Like It

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
Richard III

“Off with his head!”
Richard III

“He hath eaten me out of house and home.”
Henry IV, Part II

“…a dish fit for the gods.”
Julius Caesar

“Double, double toil and trouble…”

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
 A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“With bated breath...”
The Merchant of Venice

“Love is blind...”
The Merchant of Venice

“One fell swoop...”

“I'll not budge an inch...”
The Taming of the Shrew

“Wild-goose chase...”
Romeo and Juliet


Juliet's purported balcony at Casa di Giulietta (Juliet's House) in Verona, Italy.

“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”
 Romeo and Juliet

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
Romeo and Juliet

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet

  • Campaign Crafting
  • Honoring the Bard
  • Game Day
  • 2016 Commencement