This week marks two important dates for William Shakespeare: Although his actual birth date is unknown, he was baptized on April 26, 1564, and died almost 400 years ago on April 23, 1616.
David Evans, president of Southern Vermont College in Bennington, argues that everyone – literary scholar or not – should be acquainted with Shakespeare, and not just on the anniversary of his death.
Evans says there are a lot of reasons why he thinks Shakespeare is important, even in the context of the 21st century. “He is a massive influence on Euro-American culture, although certainly all over the world as well, but it’s part of being plugged into a tremendous history of culture and understanding the way a lot of people have thought about the world ... It’s pretty critical to be engaged with Shakespeare at some level past just a sonnet or two, to be part of contemporary literate culture,” says Evans.
The college president says that even at SVC, a very career-driven school, students can look at Shakespeare for an insight into the way people work. He gives nursing and criminal justice students as an example, because those are SVC’s two largest programs. “With criminal justice, you think about a play like Othello, which is at one level about the misuse of evidence,” he explains. “Desdemona’s handkerchief turns into the core item that causes the plot to turn.”
And for aspiring nurses, Evans points to King Lear. “I’ve thought a lot about how King Lear is much like the situation that people confront when they have to put a parent in the nursing home, for example. How all of the family anxieties and the stress that King Lear has about giving up his identity and his power are things that are a part of almost everybody’s experience these days,” says Evans.
Evans thinks that although they are old texts, the ideas and stories in Shakespeare’s plays still speak to something deep in people. “It’s not just about seeing other people’s stories and having that kind of learning, but it’s also tapping into this very critical strand of history and culture,” says Evans. “I think it’s very important for people to have even just a very modest acquaintance with [Shakespeare], because it’s the currency of a lot of conversations.”
Shakespeare isn’t the only author to have this profound relevance in society, Evans notes, but others such as Toni Morrison are doing the same kind of work in present day culture.
As its new president, Evans is excited to bring some of his passion for literature and the arts to Southern Vermont College, along with other new programming. “I’d like to ensure that the humanities and the arts have an appropriate, good strong role here at SVC so that we can do the kinds of things that I’m talking about for all of our students,” says Evans.
He adds that he’s ready to help give the school more of a presence. “I’m also interested in enhancing the college’s visibility. We’re tucked in this lovely corner of Southwestern Vermont, but I don’t think we have a tremendous presence in the mind of Vermont," he says. "And I’d like to increase that some."