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How to Think Like Shakespeare: An Introduction

April 1, 2011, 12:00 AM
Shakespeare

In April, Big Think will be hosting a series titled “How to Think Like Shakespeare.”  Like many of you, I grew up with a love of literature, and particularly of Shakespeare, that I set aside when I finished my liberal arts education. I went to law school because I took W.H. Auden’s dictum that “poetry makes nothing happen” at face value. (I would only later see that the line described the poet W.B. Yeats, who made a great deal happen!)  For many years, I focused happily on law, which undeniably makes things happen in our culture.

Over time, however, I became troubled by how much my profession and our culture as a whole favor narrow questions of law over broader questions of justice. I think I understand this preference—law is, after all, one of the few remaining shared languages our diverse society possesses. At the same time, I came to believe that a society that relies too much on law for its social cohesion is a sick one.

So I cast about for texts that were common enough and complex enough to sustain richer conversations about justice. Shakespeare, of course, came immediately to mind. I wrote a book titled A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice. As the title suggests, the book uses a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays to explore some of our most vexing contemporary dilemmas.

As I worked on the book, I became interested in how Shakespeare might illuminate other disciplines. It seemed that “myriad-minded Shakespeare,” as Coleridge called him, had much to say to those disciplines as well. I pitched the idea of an interdisciplinary examination of Shakespeare to Big Think.

This series is the result. On each day of Shakespeare’s birth month, Big Think will examine a different way that studying Shakespeare enriches the various disciplines—from neuroscience to business to psychology and beyond. Experts contributing to this series include James Shapiro, Professor of English at Columbia University and author of 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare; Ben Brantley, chief theater critics of The New York Times; Robert Pinsky, U.S. Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000; Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres; and Carol Gilligan, psychologist and author of In A Different Voice.

The hope is to use our common knowledge of the canon to begin a festival of ideas. “Joy be the consequence!”  

Kenji Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law and the guest editor of this series.

 

More from the Big Idea for Friday, April 01 2011

 

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