On Oct. 29, Marist College’s English Department hosted the Annual George Sommer Lecture that was originally established after the Marist Professor’s retirement to allow the English Department to bring a top scholar to Marist to engage with the students.
Currently Marist’s English Department uses the lecture to highlight various scholars in a cycle. Normally the college will host a Chaucer or Shakespeare scholar one year, choose to highlight any English Scholar the next year and then to highlight a Modern Language Scholar the third year.
This year’s George Sommer Lecturer, Dr. James Shapiro of Columbia University, not only enlightened attendees about the influence of Shakespeare but also took time to interact with students through a Master Class on the Shakespearean Sonnet.
Shapiro, a Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University since 1985, is also a published author of six Shakespeare books, the latest inspiring the topic for this year’s annual George Sommer Lecture: Shakespeare in America.
“There are things we as Americans tend not to talk about,” Shapiro said during his lecture, “Things that divide us, things we don’t want to believe in, and to say things we can’t or won’t say. I wanted to give you a sense of why Shakespeare speaks to us and how through Shakespeare we speak to each other. As much as Shakespeare divides us he also brings us together.”
Shapiro’s lecture focused on three of his own “case studies” examining essays with references to Shakespeare throughout American history to illustrate Shakespeare’s influence in American culture. The first was a John Quincy Adams essay about the character of Desdemona in “Othello” written in 1835 that focused on Adams’ horror at the romance between Desdemona and Othello despite being a fervent anti-slavery activist. The second essay analyzed was one by Jane Addams, most well-known for her work with Chicago’s Hull House, responding to the Pullman Strike of 1894 and comparing Pullman’s actions to those of King Lear. The final essay was one written by Toshio Mori in a Japanese Internment Camp during World War II and focused on the ideas of identity and exclusion, specifically the idea of “who really is an American?”
Shapiro was not only a high energy speaker but a fun individual starting off the night with an approximation of the lecture’s length, abandoning the microphone because he “likes to shout” and entertaining questions from students after the lecture.
Shapiro fielded questions regarding his relationship to Shakespeare, why Shakespeare is studied in ways other playwrights are not, and what he believed the most famous Shakespeare play was.
“I was required to be there for my Shakespeare class by Professor Machacek,” Junior Derek Rose explained after the event, “However, I would’ve attended even if it wasn’t required. I thought the lecture was insightful and illustrated why Shakespeare, or literature in general, is important.”
Rose was also one of many students who attended Shapiro’s earlier Master Class on the Shakespearean Sonnet that Shapiro himself proposed to Marist Professor Dr. Gregory Machacek, who was in charge of this year’s Sommer Lecture.
“When we have these speakers on campus we generally ask if they’d be willing to come sit in on a class. But the day of the week that it would have made sense for him to come sit in on the class was not a good day for him to come for the lecture,” Machacek explained, “So as we were working that out he just proposed this alternative ‘Why don’t I just teach what I’ll call a master class and we’ll just schedule it as a general open opportunity for people?’”
The Master Class let Marist Students get a chance to not only learn from Shapiro but gave them a better chance to get to know him.
“I love doing this,” Shapiro said during the class while giving a glimpse at his very relatable and funny personality as he joked that those in attendance all had to say something, “I usually tell my students that if you don’t say at least three dumb things you won’t pass the semester.”
Shapiro guided those in attendance through the changes between an earlier, and unauthorized publication of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 138” to the changes seen in a later version of the same sonnet.
“This poem has turned into a poem about what you get when you suppress the simple truths,” Shapiro said to students. It followed the idea that relationships look bad from the outside because friends don’t understand the relationship.
And following the end of the Master Class, Shapiro took the time to stay and talk with students informally before the lecture later that evening.
“He told me later that it [the class] allows him to get a feel for the students and maybe adjust his lecture a little bit so that he is delivering it to their capacities and their interests,” Machacek revealed the next day.
“I was required to go to the Sonnet Master Class for Poetry Workshop with Professor Zurhellen but I’m so glad we were required to go,” Junior Kate Powers explained, “It was a fantastic experience. To experience a class-like atmosphere with Professor Shapiro was a very impressive experience. I really enjoyed the discussion he brought up, and enjoyed seeing so many of my fellow English majors, and even some non-English majors, participating so much.”
“I loved seeing how he approached the sonnet, got everyone involved and really fed off of what everyone was saying,” Senior Laila Shawwa said, “He managed to turn everyone’s answers into something applicable in one way or another and made everyone’s input valid and valued, which I really appreciated–especially since I’m going into education. He did a great job of keeping everyone involved and engaged which I loved. He was so energetic and made it so easy to follow along and understand the poem.”
Shapiro proved to be a hit with students and attendees of the lecture in general.
“I thought it went really well,” Machacek said when asked if the lecture was successful, “The design of the lecture series is to bring some top scholar to campus but those kinds of people sometimes are more practiced at talking to graduate students and other specialists, and they lose the ability to kind of communicate. This guy didn’t. I thought he pitched his lecture just right so that undergraduate students could understand it. And my sign of that was how many students had nice relevant questions after the fact.”
Machacek said he cannot remember the last time a lecture had the amount of good questions asked as Shapiro’s did.
When asked if it would be possible to bring Shapiro back to Marist Campus, Machacek said, “I hope we get a chance to bring him up here again but it probably won’t be under the Sommer lecture.”