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400 Years After Shakespeare’s Death, He’s Still Required Reading (Even For Econ Majors)

William Shakespeare is commonly believed to have died 400 years ago Saturday, but, as he promised in Sonnet 18, his works have lived on “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.” From tours through English history1 to romances that we can’t stop retelling (in every conceivable place and time) to tragedies, Shakespeare has secured his place on our stages — and in our classrooms.

Curious about how popular Shakespeare remains in academia, I looked at the catalog of more than 1.1 million syllabi available on the Open Syllabus Explorer to see which Shakespeare plays are most often assigned to college students (and which ones tend to turn up outside English courses).2 Shakespeare’s plays and poems were assigned to U.S. students more than 10,000 times within the syllabi in the collection.3 “Hamlet,” “The Tempest” and “Othello” lead the list of plays assigned both in English classes and overall, but some professors in other majors choose to highlight other works, sometimes those that are particularly germane to their disciplines. (And there are a few plays I think should be ranked higher on these lists.4)

MOST COMMONLY ASSIGNED PLAYS
DEPARTMENT 1ST 2ND 3RD
Biology The Tempest Hamlet Othello
Economics Timon of Athens Richard III The Merchant of Venice
English Hamlet The Tempest Othello
History Henry V The Tempest Richard III
Journalism Hamlet Othello Henry V
Law The Merchant of Venice Julius Caesar Macbeth
Philosophy Hamlet Othello The Tempest
Politics Julius Caesar The Tempest Hamlet
Psychology Hamlet King Lear The Merry Wives of Windsor
Sociology Henry V Henry IV King Lear
Overall Hamlet The Tempest Othello
Most frequently assigned Shakespeare plays by college department

Source: Open Syllabus Explorer

Pre-law students are most likely to be assigned to read Portia’s heroic turn as a lawyer in the trial that concludes “The Merchant of Venice,” and they have a lot to learn from her ability to dig into the fine print to save her client (though they might also want to pay attention to her plea to seek mercy, not justice). But they often miss out on “Henry VI, Part II,” which includes the line: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (I should note that this line is frequently quoted out of context; it’s spoken by a villain and so can perhaps be seen as praise for the legal profession.)

Psychology students most often encounter Shakespeare’s great madmen: King Lear and Hamlet. Perhaps they’re the ones to blame for the more sexualized stagings of Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother. Oedipal productions of the play are such a trope that, in Jasper Fforde’s modern lit-nerd comedy novel “Something Rotten,” his Hamlet character credibly complains, “The good-night kiss with Mum has got longer and longer. That Freud fellow will have a bloody nose if ever I meet him.”

Assigning “Timon of Athens” to economics majors seems like it might be intended to do the same kind of filtering that organic chemistry does in pre-med. Timon, a rich man, discovers that his venal friends only love him for his riches and winds up so embittered that he retreats to a cave and tries to use the last of his money to commission an attack on his former home. If this is what riches buy, why not ignore your parents and major in art history, like you wanted? (But if you’re going to stick with econ, maybe grab “Richard II” to see how financial mismanagement kicks off the cycle of murders and ousted kings of the rest of the histories.)

Finally, it makes sense to see “Julius Caesar” take the top Shakespeare slot in politics readings, but what is “The Tempest” doing in second place? While “Julius Caesar” has factions struggling for power in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, “The Tempest” has only one powerful character: Prospero the enchanter. Prospero doesn’t play politics; he orchestrates all the action of the play unopposed. But because he doesn’t face external opponents, Prospero winds up having to limit his power himself: At the end of the play, he promises “this rough magic I here abjure” and breaks his sorcerer’s staff. Which should be good for a discussion on the Imperial Presidency, at least.

Footnotes

  1. Be careful about using Shakespeare’s works as your only historical reference, fellow Americans. Leaving aside the controversy about whether Richard III really killed the princes in the tower, Joan of Arc almost certainly did not cavort with demons as she does in “Henry VI, Part I.”
  2. Unfortunately, this data set doesn’t let me look at syllabi from high schools, where students may get their first look at Shakespeare, but I suppose it also excludes all the dramatic readings people host in their homes after graduation too.
  3. The Open Syllabus Explorer is predominantly assembled using web scraping. The project notes that the syllabi are largely from the last decade of teaching but may include earlier assignments.
  4. Good thing that, like Hamlet, “ever I was born to set it right.”

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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