Taking Shakespeare Outside the Classroom

By Whitney Horn

Contemporary renderings of William Shakespeare’s work in films like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and The Lion King (1994), based on The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet respectively, are one way to engage modern audiences. In the hopes of making Shakespeare more accessible in a classroom setting, Donald Hedrick (ΦBK, University of Kansas, 1969), professor of English at Kansas State University, has developed a new class that explores Shakespeare in relation to the modern world through typical lesson structures as well as extracurricular activities.  

Hedrick’s class, called Shakespeare Now!, aims to explore the significance of Shakespeare in relation to society and politics today. Students still read Shakespeare’s original plays, but then go deeper. They also read books based on his plays, like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (Penguin Random House, 2016) reimagining Hamlet as a fetus in his mother’s womb, and articles spanning several disciplines that relate to Shakespeare’s work.

Hedrick’s desire to teach in a different way, not just through lectures and discussions in the classroom, led to the creation of his new course taking Shakespeare beyond the classroom and into the world. To achieve this, Hedrick and his students have ventured off campus to such locales as Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community and the Manhattan Public Library to engage with the community through a student-led lecture on Shakespeare’s possible origin story as presented in the film Shakespeare in Love (1998) and a presentation on the military as presented in Henry V compared to today’s armed forces.

In the creation of this innovative class, Hedrick has committed himself to adhere to Phi Beta Kappa’s belief in curiosity and creativity fostered by a liberal arts and sciences education. To do this, Hedrick has found ways to cross disciplines through his teaching of Shakespeare spanning fields such as sociology, psychology, and neurobiology. Hedrick explains: “We read a piece on neuroscience connected to romantic relations in the plays. Neuroscience suggests that unpredictable love is more exciting than predictable love, so students wrote [essays] comparing the crazy love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as related to circuits and pleasure zones in the brain.” The goal, Hedrick believes, is to think about the literature as more than just literature, but creative work about the human condition and biology and the interaction between individuals.

“I’m always a big fan of encouraging curiosity,” Hedrick said. “That’s one mental function students need training in.” However, he thinks the standard structure of teaching can sometimes dampen curiosity and hopes that his class – by incorporating student-led lectures and explorations into the current context of Shakespeare’s work – can open students to exploring their creativity. “The development of curiosity is a difficult thing,” Hedrick believes, “and one of the most important things in a university education.” 

Hedrick believes the class has opened the eyes of many to the complexity and excitement to be found Shakespeare’s plays and hopes that those who have been inspired will pass on their knowledge and curiosity to others eager to learn about the famous playwright and poet. Hopefully, he will teach this class, or classes like it, again in the future. 

Whitney Horn is a senior majoring in English at Kansas State University. Kansas State is home to the Beta of Kansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.