Visiting Professor Lectures on Shakespeare on the 400th Anniversary of the Writer’s Death

by ETHAN McDOWELL, Contributor

A crowd of eager students and faculty filled the auditorium of Hayden Hall on Thursday, April 14 to listen to a lecture given by visiting professor Dr. Garrett Sullivan, Jr. of Pennsylvania State University. He was equipped with a presentation of videos, pictures, and art, and an impressive compendium of all things Shakespeare. Dr. Sullivan’s talk examined the 16th and 17th century writer and playwright and the Shakespearean themes, motifs, and allusions contained within British propaganda films during World War II.

The event was coordinated by English professor Dr. Brian Chalk, who stated that the goal of the lecture was to both commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and to allow for students to connect to Shakespeare’s ideas and themes through the interrelationship of British wartime propaganda and Shakespearean literary form.

Dr. Sullivan was introduced by English professor and department chair Ashley Cross. Dr. Cross celebrated Dr. Sullivan’s academic achievements in a personal introduction, which included his position as co-editor of Shakespeare Studies and his publications on early modern English literature. Professor Sullivan began the lecture with a video segment from the film Henry V. While Laurence Olivier addressed his troops on the glory of England and God in the prose of Shakespeare, Dr. Sullivan readied his discourse on the use of Shakespeare as wartime propaganda.

In his discussion, Dr. Sullivan detailed the purposes of using film as propaganda to call men to arms using three film propaganda themes: (1) What Britain is Fighting For, (2) How Britain Fights, and (3) The Need to Understand Sacrifices. He gave the audience the example of the British film Fires Were Started, a depiction of heroism and firefighting during the Blitzkrieg of London during World War II. The images of firefighters defending the city saw a response from the British population to support the war effort. The documentary could be connected to Shakespeare through a speech given in the film from Macbeth, showing the audience that Shakespeare was a powerful motivator in mobilizing anti-German aggressions.

“Seeing that these works from 400 years ago are still producing secondary creative works at least as recently as the 1940s puts some perspective on them even just as the original plays themselves,” Max Whitwell, a sophomore English major said.

Dr. Sullivan occasionally told jokes in his address that commanded laughter in the audience. At one point, Dr. Sullivan displayed a clip of the British film A Matter of Life and Death in which Shakespeare is Americanized several times. In the film, American servicemen playfully banter the dialogue of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the manner of American gangsters. A servicewoman misspells Shakespeare’s name, and when another woman acknowledges this, the first woman jokes, “Who are you, his agent?” to remark on the commercialization of American ideals.

While this elicited chuckles and snickers from the audience, Dr. Sullivan revealed that these antics were representations of the bond between America, portrayed by the servicemen and servicewomen, and Britain, portrayed by Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Whitwell said that he thoroughly enjoyed this portion of the presentation. “The part where he talked about the mocking depiction of the irreverent American attitude towards Shakespeare by the British was the best part” Whitwell said.

“I was intrigued by the topic of Shakespeare and the film industry, but I was not expecting it to take the turn it did,” said Lauren Kalina, a sophomore Communications major. “The huge impact and influence that the media has over society is outstanding and it’s cool to see how even Shakespeare is used in that influential way.”