Shakespeare soothes the soul and sharpens the mind
For decades, David B. Cohen pored over the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. He repeatedly read and enjoyed live and recorded performances of the great writer’s works.
The professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin recognized themes and insights in Shakespeare’s writing he believed many critics had overlooked. Beyond the brilliance of Shakespeare’s characters, language, and presentation of the human dilemma, Cohen found an astute observer of the human condition in Shakespeare’s 37 plays.
After he retired from the university, Cohen devoted himself to writing “Plays of Genius,” a book which illuminated Shakespeare’s greatest social, moral and existential insights into human nature. Cohen showed that more than 400 years after Shakespeare wrote his plays, psychological research confirmed the bard’s profound examinations into love and sex, good and evil, fate and free will, illusion and reality.
Though centuries and empires have come and gone since Shakespeare’s death, passions such as Cohen’s still flourish.
If anything, Shakespeare’s reach and popularity have greatly expanded during the 21st century, both at the university and beyond, says Alan Friedman, director of Shakespeare Studies and professor in the Department of English.
“Shakespeare has truly entered the culture in an unprecedented way during the past 30 or 40 years,” Friedman says, pointing to Shakespearean festivals across the country, popular films and adaptations, and videos of staged performances.
“It’s infectious. Instead of being boring and monumental, it’s great fun, exciting and smart.”
As coordinator of the university’s participation in the Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS) program, currently housed at the University of Notre Dame, Friedman oversees the annual exchange that brings a troupe of five classically trained actors to the campus.
The actors teach classes and workshops, present one-person shows and perform a full-length Shakespeare play using subtle gestures, body movements and voice modulation rather than elaborate costumes or sets.
Since coming to the university in 1999, AFTLS has hosted sold-out performances that Friedman estimates have entertained as many as 13,000 audience members. In 2006, the AFTLS production of “Hamlet” won the Austin Circle of Critics Award for best touring performance in the city.
James Loehlin, the Shakespeare at Winedale Regents Professor, attributes the bard’s growing popularity to his focus on such a wide range of human experience. “Whatever your age and circumstances, there’s something in the plays that’s accessible,” Loehlin, a Plan II alumnus, says.
“When I was a moody adolescent, I responded to Hamlet’s adolescent moodiness. At other periods of my life, I focused on the romanticism or political complexity of his plays or their
“Shakespeare’s canon of work covers a lifetime of experience, from the naive optimism of youth to bitterness and pessimism, then, finally, a sense of resignation and acceptance. His works’ openness and richness and depth keeps us coming back.”
The former student is now director of the university’s Shakespeare at Winedale program. For more than 30 summers, the acclaimed program has drawn students to the Winedale Theatre Barn, located in the rolling countryside close to the small town of Round Top. Winedale attracts students from different disciplines who spend their summer learning, rehearsing and performing three plays.
“I’m the fortunate guy who gets to teach Shakespeare to students who are very eager to learn,” Loehlin says. He’s also the fortunate guy who helps introduce even younger audiences to Shakespeare’s plays.
“I used to drag my kids, kicking and screaming, to Winedale,” says Mark Metts, a Plan II and law school alumnus, Houston lawyer and Winedale supporter. “But then, they really got into it. To have words written 400 years ago performed in that environment is really magical.”
Elizabeth Lay, who spent two summers at Winedale as a student, then one as an assistant, says, “I thought I’d found heaven on earth. “You take the plays and make them your own. After a while, you start to live and breathe the images you’re speaking, and it remains in your blood after you leave.”
Shakespeare has traveled well—from century to century and continent to continent—due to the breadth of his soul, Kathleen Higgins, professor of philosophy, says.
“Shakespeare is an astute observer of the human psyche,” she explains. “He appreciates characters from multiple points of view and lets us see why that person sees himself as reasonable.
But Shakespeare also provides us with the ability to see a character at distance. He gives us what we need to appreciate anyone’s character in reality, as well as in plays.” One of Shakespeare’s major insights about life is how much it involves acting—showing as well as hiding who we are and what we want, says Douglas Bruster, professor of English and author of six interpretive books about Shakespeare’s works.
“Shakespeare tells us that we, all of us, are always actors and audience members—and all at the same time,” Buster explains.
If Shakespeare continues to intrigue audiences, scholars, students, actors and critics, both in their youth and the prime of their lives, he also provides enduring comfort and understanding to enthusiasts in their most difficult years.
Cohen pursued his investigation of Shakespeare’s psychological insights throughout his retirement and the final years of his life. Even after his diagnosis with multiple myeloma, Cohen and another retired psychology professor, Joe Horn, traveled to London’s Globe Theatre to see “Measure for Measure.”
“David and I had found that we had a common interest in Shakespeare,” Horn says. “But David’s interest flowered into a passion, and his illness supported even greater study of the bard because his work deals with the timeless issues of life, death and the meaning of life.”
One Saturday morning, Cohen’s wife Leslie remembers her husband rallied briefly while he was in the intensive care unit of the hospital. Cohen pumped his fist into the air and said, “Yes! I’ve finished my book on Shakespeare!” Leslie recalls.
The next day, he passed away. “I really feel that he finished the book on his deathbed,” she says.
In Shakespeare’s staggering range and richness of material, Cohen had found a world that illuminated the great social, moral and existential themes of life itself, and inspired him to the end.
Why Shakespeare? Cohen quotes the poet John Dryden in his prologue: “Shakespeare was the man, who, of all moderns and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul.” And, Shakespeare’s soulful writings continue to take center stage today because as Friedman notes, they capture the dilemma of being alive.
Celebrating John Milton’s 400th Birthday
John Milton (1608-74) ranks next to Shakespeare as one of the most influential poets and writers of the English language. His literary achievement is remarkable considering Milton lost his eyesight in 1652 and was forced to dictate his work to scribes.
Milton’s best-known works include the epic poem “Paradise Lost°” (1667), which tells the Judeo-Christian story of the fall of man, the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden; its sequel “Paradise Regained” (1671); and “Areopagitica” (1644), a treatise condemning censorship.
On the 400th anniversary of his birth, John Rumrich, the Thaman Endowed Professor of English, makes the obscure aspects of Milton’s writing accessible to modern readers in an edited collection of his writings, “The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton” (2007).
The volume, which was favorably reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, includes expert commentary on Milton’s texts, notes identifying the old meanings and roots of English words, and illuminations of historical contexts, including classical and biblical allusions.