Public Shakespeare is a many splendored thing—theatrical performance, film and television adaptation, community events, memes, written word—the last of these undergoing a Renaissance with the rise of the Web 2.0 and its swell of online cultural magazines. An essay putting Shakespeare in conversation with current events can be mounted faster than a modern-dress production or panel of talking heads. It’s an opportunity for scholars to activate the analytical resources of Shakespeare studies for the most pressing ethical and political questions of our time. But that’s a challenge to the academic status quo.

Scholar writes a peer-reviewed article; journalist makes the idea accessible to the public. That’s our current model: trickle-down education. Sometimes it goes horribly wrong—“Was Shakespeare a Woman?” Or major media outlets keep going back to the same two tenured white male ivy league professors. Meanwhile, important ideas from precarious younger academics are marginalized, good scholarly work unnoticed outside our professional circles.

Most academics don’t pursue twenty-first-century relevance when we do academic research. We pursue fact, truth, and understanding. But Shakespeare scholarship is brimming with things the public values, not only amazing curiosities that make us smile, but also nuanced thought with ethical implications for everyday life. There’s a hunger for joy and knowledge in a public sick of our divisive politics and slighted by government neglect of public schools. Ideologically, many Shakespeare scholars are committed to public education. Structurally, academia is not. So it falls to individual scholars for self-motivated—often self-financed—acts of public engagement yet, practically speaking, those scholars are often unprepared, having been professionalized in (I’ll say it) a self-righteous insular academic system now on the brink of collapse.

Defense-of-the-humanities proponents make very compelling arguments to other academics who already know the value of what we do. That’s not the audience we need to convince. Meanwhile, we let jaded people who have left the profession define our work to the public in MLA Convention hit pieces, and then complain about them to each other. We need a more pro-active approach from humanities scholars, whose specialty is, after all, language and human creation. While academics know a lot about the topics they study, they also have a lot to learn about how to package that knowledge for an audience that wants intellectual conversation about how the past relates to the present, but doesn’t want JSTOR.

Like many of his contemporaries—we now call them the University Wits— Shakespeare shaped material from the academia of his time into a form non-academics enjoy, creating access to opportunities for heightened thought and conversation on the issues in their lives and worlds. We need some new University Wits eager to package knowledge derived from scholarship in publicly accessible forms.

As drama, Shakespeare’s plays shift power from a centralized authority—the author—to the people—the audience. Public Shakespeare does too. It is anti-hierarchical, socialist, ethical, and political. Public Shakespeare is involved in the project of democracy. Leveraging the presumed safety of Shakespeare for radical ideas, Public Shakespeare Trojan Horses politics into Shakespeare and scholarship into politics.

Representation matters in Public Shakespeare. Who gets to tell the story—the bodies and identities in the room, on the stage, with the mic, in the by-line, in the audience, in administration—needs to reflect our societies. Diversity and inclusion are not merely sought and celebrated. They are the sine qua non of Public Shakespeare. That’s why Public Shakespeare seeks out new perspectives, allowing—begging—them to change the meanings of the texts specialists think they know so well.

Public Shakespeare stands for accessibility in all forms—open access, public access, language accessible to non-specialists, accessible to first-generation students, to people outside academia, to people with disabilities.

Shakespeare studies is particularly well-positioned for public humanities because his works—both very old texts imbued with history, and constantly performed all around us today—by design bring the past into conversation with the present. That’s what he did in his plays, and what we do with them. Traditionally, theater and film adaptations have been the platform for making Shakespeare modern, as in the Trump-themed Julius Caesar at the Public Theater. But the swell of digital news venues has opened new possibilities for Public Shakespeare in argumentative writing. Just as Shakespeare’s plays are both theatrical performances and written texts, Public Shakespeare comes in the form of community events, like the Public Shakespeare Initiative, and written word, as with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare and Beyond or The Sundial at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Decentralized grassroots events and scattered op-eds are rising. That’s progress. Public Shakespeare is no longer restricted to well-moneyed institutions, or to people who can afford the price of a ticket. By-the-people for-the-people Public Shakespeare democratizes Shakespearean adaptation.

A cute appropriation—To impeach or not to impeach? That is the question—is not Public Shakespeare. It’s not even iambic pentameter. Public Shakespeare is about using Shakespeare’s conceptually rich plays to enhance our understanding of lived experience, including the personal, ethical, and political valences scholarship often erases. It’s about scholarly rigor in publicly accessible forms, Shakespeare explains the news, modern manifestations, new meanings and resonances. Just as Shakespeare wrote both tragedies and comedies, Public Shakespeare can be tragic (during times of trouble, the arts and humanities help us look more closely to understand what’s really going on) or comic (they remind us of the sources of joy in life, even when hope seems lost). And Public Shakespeare must be flexible enough to accommodate different enterprises: community events, public writing, productions, adaptations, the educational wings of institutions like the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, sometimes politics, yes, but definitely not always, please not always.

Public Shakespeare isn’t about a scholar giving knowledge to the people. It’s about creating space for memorable human experiences, meaningful social connections, and important cultural conversations. Theatrical events and intellectual discussions kick those experiences into action. But the play is not the thing. At the theater, what matters is the conversation audiences have—with loved ones, with strangers—after the play. Public Shakespeare is about the audience, not the academic. It creates the conditions for transformative conversations.