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Arts & Life

"The Shakespeare Requirement" By: Julie Schumacher


“The Shakespeare Requirement”

Author: Julie Schumacher  

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 306

Price: $25.95 (Hardcover)

Truly funny novels are a treasure, hard to find.

“The Shakespeare Requirement” is a delight, a sequel to “Dear Committee Members,” Schumacher’s comic novel comprised of letters of recommendation, some straightforward, some facetious, some subversive, written for his students by Professor Jason T. Fitger of Payne University, a nondescript midwestern school.

Fitger, who has been at Payne 25 years, is a not very successful novelist teaching fiction writing.

Because he has an MFA, not a PhD, the so-called scholars in the department hold him in low esteem, “a member of a subordinate species.”

But discord is so ferocious in the English department that he is made chairman. No one else will touch the job.

“The Shakespeare Requirement” opens, as academic novels must, with the start of the school year. It will close at commencement, in much the same way as Perry Mason novels begin with a crime and end with a jury trial.

But this story does not open with optimism, characters excited about a new beginning, a fresh start.

To begin with, the chairman’s office, on the first floor of Willard Hall, is dirty and hot, and “custodians were responsible for bathrooms and public spaces.” He would have to clean it himself.

His phone and his computer are not working, and he is informed that everything—all messages, emails, appointments, notices—must go through “P-Cal,” the university site. Fitger still uses a paper calendar.

He can’t get maintenance help for mold, mice, or frayed electrical connections because he doesn’t yet have an office budget which, it turns out, he cannot get without the successful completion of the departmental “Statement of Vision.” The university guidelines for the SOV insist: “a department’s identity and purpose are paramount in the cogent formation of a credible intellectual and pragmatic unity, this to be expressed in a planning document based upon the disciplinary congruities.”

Fitger, like most English professors, thought the purpose of English departments was to study literature and learn to write clearly.

This pompous and useless document must be approved by his faculty unanimously.

Fitger thinks: “Unanimity in English–it was akin to a rainbow over a field of unicorns.” Further: “The department was a fun house of dysfunctional characters. Academia was, traditionally, a refuge for the poorly socialized and the obsessive, but English, at Payne, had a higher percentage of crackpots than most.”

Fitger will have to deal with his faculty one at a time, like the speaker of the house, bribing and threatening and cajoling each separately. One wants to teach only at midday. Another refuses to be on any committee with certain of her colleagues.

Moreover, there is one seemingly impossible issue: the Shakespeare requirement. Professor Dennis Cassovan has devoted his life to the bard and believes no English major should graduate without at least one semester of Shakespeare.

Prof. Helena Stang, feminist critic, believes Shakespeare “the king of dead white irrelevant men” while Prof. Virginia Beauchamp suggests “problematizing Shakespeare by including him in a survey on writers of color.”

There is civil war within and threats from without. Dr. Roland R. Gladwell, chairman of economics, the department upstairs, is a whiz at bringing in alumni money. His territory has been elegantly renovated, with technology-enhanced classrooms, skylights, mosaic tile floors, and a café.

Like Hitler eyeing the Sudetenland, Gladwell means to expand and take over the English department space as well, driving them finally from the building altogether.

English, it is noted, generates few rich alums.

To further his scheme, Gladwell volunteers to chair QUAP, the campus-wide Quality Assessment Program. Data will be collected, numbers gathered and crunched. “Inefficient” departments, departments with falling enrollment, which bring in few contracts or grants, will be deemed of poor quality and staff reduced or eliminated, the freed-up funds moving to, of course, departments like economics.

Still reeling from an unwanted divorce, and with his ex-wife now dating the dean, Fitger, hopeless sad sack that he is, perseveres, showing compassion to lost, confused students and depressed, underpaid faculty. Against tall odds, he fights for traditional academic values.

The temptation when reviewing novels like this is always to invoke Dave Barry: “You can’t make this stuff up.” Some years ago, I attended an English department meeting where the Shakespeare requirement was debated then eliminated. (An English major may now choose from Shakespeare, Milton or Chaucer.)

At that meeting, lifelong teachers of Shakespeare voted to drop the requirement because then they would have in class only students who “wanted” to be there. That would make teaching pleasanter. When I suggested that we, the professors, knew best what the undergraduates needed to study, I was told that my position was “patriarchal and coercive.”

I have always been glad that the professors in charge of curricula at medical schools do not adopt this position. Imagine a world in which your internist, unknown to you, had opted not to study diseases of the liver.

But, I digress.

“The Shakespeare Requirement,” like the Shakespearean problem plays—“Measure for Measure,” for example—contains peculiar characters and not just plot twists, but mood swings. We have here a kind of tragi-comedy, hilarious and sad by turns, but finally a success and a delight.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.

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