The website listverse.com estimates that there have been about one million books written about Shakespeare (making him the 8th most famous person ever, just ahead of Newton and Da Vinci, just behind Hitler and St. Paul), which – if true – would amount to roughly 2,500 books per year. It’s not one million, but the World Shakespeare Bibliography boasts 135,902 items in its catalog of Shakespearean scholarship. And, as of April 2014, the MLA International Bibliography listed 41,465 items about Shakespeare, compared to 11,202 about Dante; 10,764 about Joyce; 9,383 about Chaucer; 8,257 about Milton; 6,580 about Dickens; 6,389 about Faulkner; 5,603 about Beckett; 4,751 about Woolf; 4,503 about Proust; 4,257 about Hemingway; 3,537 about Spenser, and 3,161 about Dostoevsky. It’s a historical fact: we write a lot about Shakespeare. What is the explanation for this fact? Why do we write so much about Shakespeare? Why Shakespeare?

Clearly, writing about Shakespeare is an extremely popular thing to do, yet there is another, less obvious point to make: writing is an extraordinarily popular and productive way to engage with Shakespeare's art. In other words, writing about Shakespeare is very popular, sure, but writing about Shakespeare is also very popular. Even as reading and acting remain the basic modes of Shakespearean engagement, writing is the way in which we put a stamp on reading and acting, the way in which private, individual experiences with Shakespeare become part of our public, communal discussions about the meaning and value of his art. Something about Shakespeare’s literature prompts the desire or even the need to write, whether one is a high school student, a theatre critic, an academic scholar, or a creative writer. Perhaps even more than reading and acting, writing is the way in which we as a culture have engaged with and kept alive Shakespeare’s literature. What is it about Shakespeare that excites us to write? Why writing?

To open up a conversation regarding “writing about Shakespeare” is to invoke a series of interrelated yet distinct concerns. There is scholarly writing about Shakespeare, and we can consider the status and stakes of Shakespeare studies as an academic industry, but there is also student writing about Shakespeare, and we can consider the role of Shakespeare in a composition classroom. There is expository writing about Shakespeare, but there is also creative writing about Shakespeare. There is writing about Shakespeare’s plays and poems, but there is also writing about Shakespeare’s life and times. We can consider writing about Shakespeare as a historical phenomenon, and we can ask how we have written about Shakespeare en route to modernity, but we can also consider writing about Shakespeare as a present concern for students, scholars, critics, and artists alike, and we can ask how we should write about Shakespeare now and in the future.

The Writing About Shakespeare lecture series explores these questions and concerns by asking Shakespeareans for their thoughts on writing and writers for their thoughts on Shakespeare. Some of our topics include:

Shakespeare Studies

  • Why has such a prolific Shakespeare studies industry emerged?
  • What is the status and what are the stakes of Shakespeare studies?
  • How is/was Shakespearean scholarship innovative? How conservative?

Shakespeare and the Essay

  • What are the most significant writings about Shakespeare?
  • What is the relationship between Shakespeare's art and the essay as a distinctly modern form of composition?
  • How is writing about Shakespeare unique, i.e. different from writing about any other author or any other topic? 

Kinds of Writing About Shakespeare

  • How is Shakespeare approached differently by writers, actors, scholars, enthusiasts, etc.?
  • How and why do creative writers use Shakespeare to write their works?
  • How is Shakespeare written about in different spheres: high school, college, scholarly criticism, popular media, etc.? 

Shakespeare, Rhetoric, and Composition

  • What role does Shakespeare have to play in a twenty-first-century composition course?
  • What might twenty-first-century scholarship on rhetoric and composition reveal to us about Shakespeare as a writer (i.e., his approach to, process of, or attitude about composition)?
  • Do Shakespeare's works have an argument (in the way that expository writing does)? Should expository writing tell a story (in the way that Shakespeare's works do)?
  • Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an excellent writer. What would Shakespeare's tips for modern essayists be? 
  • Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an excellent writer. What would Shakespeare's tips for modern essayists be? 

Our series will draw upon, bring together, and build out from the smattering of scholarship related to the various aspects of writing about Shakespeare. For example, writing as it is represented in Shakespeare’s works has received plenty of critical attention, as in a 1996 collection edited by David Bergeron and a 2000 monograph by Robert Weimann, yet there is considerably less scholarship regarding how we write from, about, and with Shakespeare. One exception is the eminent Shakespearean scholar Frank Kermode and his reflection on “Writing About Shakespeare” in the London Review of Books (1999). This concern is also the centerpiece of the 2005 volume of Shakespeare Survey, entitled Writing About Shakespeare, edited by Peter Holland, a leading voice for performance-oriented Shakespeare criticism. Meanwhile, Harold Bloom – a prolific and populist, if controversial, Shakespearean scholar – commissioned for his Writing About Literature series a volume from Paul Gleed, How to Write About Shakespeare (2008), which is designed specifically for undergraduates. On a related front, rhetoric and composition scholars such as Marie Fitzwilliam and Laura Fasick, both writing in 2007, have explored the role of Shakespeare in the freshman composition classroom, coming up with different conclusions: “keep him” and “ditch him.” What is needed at this time, when the fortunes of both Shakespeare studies and rhetoric and composition are on the rise, is a serious consideration of how these two forces – Shakespeare and writing – inform and to some degree depend upon each other.

Our lecture series takes its life and energy from the Harvard College Writing Program, specifically from the methods and concerns of the required freshman expository writing course, Expos 20. Yet the aims of this lecture series are twofold: (1) to enhance the education of student writers here at Harvard, as noted, and (2) to serve as a hub for a broader scholarly conversation regarding Shakespeare and writing. 

The Writing About Shakespeare series plans to host one speaker per semester or one speaker per year. Invited speakers will be asked to participate in two events: (1) a public lecture related to their research, and (2) a discussion geared specifically toward student writing. In these smaller break-out sessions, speakers might participate in a workshop of an Expos student's paper, reflect upon their own experiences with student writing, or use one of their own pieces about Shakespeare to discuss their writing process. 

Down the road, our lecture series has the potential to produce an edited collection of scholarly essays and perhaps even some student reflections on writing about Shakespeare. More locally, the series hopes to build some bridges between the Writing Program and other departments on campus and also to produce a number of Expos teaching resources, such as recorded lectures and conversations, distributable handouts and exercises, and short essays on student writing.