Teaching Shakespeare Under Quarantine

This is the state of man. Today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; tomorrow blossoms
And bears his blushing honors thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost …

            — Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII

SHAKESPEARE’S HENRY VIII (also performed under the title All Is True) is not a popular play. Its plot structure might best be described as unfortunate, and it is largely the reason the play gets overlooked. Modeled on the medieval de casibus genre — collections of tales of the downfall of great people — Henry VIII’s characters are a gaggle of would-be protagonists who hardly get an hour to strut and fret before they are ushered away. Yet its disordered and unpredictable plot makes the play perfectly shaped for our present moment.

The Duke of Buckingham, who first takes center stage, opens the play by making a dangerous political enemy in the powerful Cardinal Wolsey; we expect to see Buckingham fall, but not as swiftly as he does. Buckingham is gone by the early part of Act II, and our attention shifts to Wolsey, who is out by the end of Act III; then, we focus on Catherine of Aragon, who falls in Act IV. Death spreads at such an unpredictable and breakneck pace that no catharsis is possible. The tragedy of this play is that no one, including the audience, gets the dignity or meaning a true tragedy would provide.

Although the play ends with the birth of Elizabeth I, the hope for the future that she might provide rings hollow in light of the fact that those celebrating her birth are also doomed. Thomas Cranmer, whose encomium to the infant closes the play, will be executed before he sees her reign, as will her mother, Anne Boleyn. The play concludes less with the promise of a better future than by underscoring the fact that the one thing that is sure about the future is that none of us will get to see most of it.

During the last few weeks of online teaching under quarantine, I have felt some of the strongest moments of solidarity with students that I have experienced as a teacher — a feeling arising from the fact that we have all had to recalibrate how we understand the narrative arc of our lives. We had been operating under the assumption (even if we knew better, in theory) that we moved through a predictable and coherent trajectory, and now we have been forced to confront the fact that meaningful, human-centered plot structures do not govern our lives.

The upper-division students in my “Shakespeare: Later Plays” elective at Boston College, which wrapped up with our reading of Henry VIII, articulated this realization especially well. Their most common sentiment was that they have nothing to look forward to — a view expressed not as an anxious complaint but as a clear-eyed observation. Their college education won’t lead to a job (or even a ceremony to mark the end of a life-stage), their semester of assignments won’t culminate in a feeling of mastery (or even a grade), and many meaningful relationships they have made will be cut off without resolution.

I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more.

            — Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII

This sense of having no future is one I share with my students. I was one of the lucky few among the many graduate students who seek academic positions each year to land a tenure-track job with a fair teaching load and decent pay and benefits at a financially stable university in a major metropolitan area. I did not get this position because I did everything right — though I spent much of my time in grad school scrambling to outperform myself to make up for the immeasurable deficit created by the scarcity of livable academic positions. I got my job because I had immense support from generous mentors and colleagues and I got improbably fortunate. There are thousands of others who equally deserve jobs like mine and got none because, while there is plenty of academic labor to be performed, most of it is not compensated with a living wage, benefits, or any kind of security. Despite my good fortune, the sense that there is no future I can count on has not gone away, and unless something major changes, I don’t expect it to. 

O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favors!

            — Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII

Academic Twitter has been faithfully tracking reports of layoffs of staff, faculty, and graduate workers. This crisis situation garnered attention from those of us who have experienced relative stability as academic workers when at least one tenure-track faculty member’s contract was not renewed and more tenure-line faculty were left expecting that their hard-earned positions were liable to go, too. The outcry at the laying off of tenure-track faculty is warranted, but as many have pointed out, there should be no less concern for the fate of other academic workers in the current crisis. After all, yearly layoffs are the norm for contingent workers, who make up the vast majority of university faculty, and without whose labor universities could not operate.

Despite expressions of regret at the bad fortune of the most precarious, the fact that more academic workers have not moved to demand that all teachers and researchers receive a living wage suggests that many academics still see themselves as canny protagonists thriving by virtue of wit and an ability to adapt to whatever the situation demands — much like Shakespeare’s Rosalind or Viola, who don disguises to gain access to extra privileges in a power structure stacked against them. But, as my students noted, we are not living through a human-centered plot arc, though we are certainly experiencing another kind of plotted structure — that of capitalism.

It is nothing new to say that universities have become profit-driven hedge funds. But usefully confronting this development requires facing the fact that capitalist institutions are oriented toward increasing profit by cutting labor costs. They do this predictably and unceasingly — i.e., they don’t reach a point of satiation and stop. Every academic worker needs to understand that the lowest paid, most insecure faculty position is their own prospective future unless we all make major changes to secure power over the conditions of our labor.

This is not merely a self-interested endeavor. As many union campaigns for academic workers have pointed out, instructors’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. If we care about pushing for justice on our campuses, if we care about producing and sharing knowledge, if we think there is value in higher education, then we have to demand a real role in decision-making at our institutions. Otherwise, the governing logic of capitalism, which cycles people in and out of fortune without regard for their dignity and with no interest in human meaningfulness, will continue to be the only logic structuring our lives at universities, until it drives these institutions into the ground.

[E]very man shall eat in safety
Under his own vine what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors.

            — Thomas Cranmer in Henry VIII

Every jeremiad is rooted in a disappointed yet persistent utopianism. When I teach, I get to see my students develop in a forward-moving trajectory, but one that is not defined by an increase in mere utility. They come to class game to tackle obscure and awkward plays like Henry VIII, and they apply their capable minds to those texts in order to achieve new insights, to hone their critical capacities, and to refine their sense of themselves and their commitments. I enjoy watching them as they navigate unfamiliar material, deriving what they need from it as they struggle to create meaningful lives for themselves. When I talk to my colleagues from across departments, I feel recognized for the intrinsic worth of my research, and I feel alive with excitement about the projects they are pursuing as well.

Universities, at their best, are so close to being utopian spaces, but the ideal version of the university I have at times experienced may soon become utopian in the sense of being unreal — that is, existing in no place.

As the de casibus tradition teaches us, we will never be fully free from the vicissitudes of fortune. We still have to shut down and hope to survive during times of plague, as did the theaters in Shakespeare’s day. But some of the plots that structure our lives are in our power to change. Academic workers must take as our motto that a threat to any of us is a threat to all of us. If we collectively refuse to accept the narrative that our institutions can’t afford to pay us for the value we create, we can force our plot arc to change.


Andrea Crow is an assistant professor in the English department at Boston College and a former organizer with the Graduate Workers of Columbia unionization campaign.



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