By Anand Venigalla
James Bednarz, professor of English, has returned this semester from his 2017- 2018 sabbatical, which he spent at his home in New York City, writing a book entitled, “The Art of Shakespeare.”
The new book is “an attempt to look at how the visual arts were not only a part of Shakespeare’s time and his performances, but the way in which through the centuries artists have tried to envision both Shakespeare and his work, his characters and plots, even his metaphors, in the case of William Blake, who seizes on lines of Shakespeare and makes pictures of that,” Bednarz said.
“Nobody has yet focused on Shakespeare’s continuing creative force in modern and contemporary art, and nobody has shown the profound links between his past and our present that are very much alive,” Bednarz wrote in his sabbatical report to Nathaniel Bowditch, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Bednarz found his time away from teaching to be refreshing and regenerative. “I think teaching and research should be inextricably bound together, and the more that you know the better a teacher you are, and so it’s just nice to have time to look in-depth at ideas and problems that come up in teaching and come up in the intellectual life of anyone who’s interested in the liberal arts,” he said.
He appreciated the “undivided time” that allowed him to focus on a few central projects while also accommodating incoming projects such as working on five articles (three of them published, two forthcoming) and drafting a key-note address for the playwright John Marston.
“If you’ve written, a lot people ask you to contribute to volumes they’re doing, and so writing becomes a kind of expanded field depending on how much you do,” he said.
Bednarz began teaching at Post around 1980 as an adjunct professor for a year and then became a full time professor. “My colleagues are superb people, and the students are remarkable. It’s always been stimulating,” he said. “I’ve never actually applied to any position at any other university since Post has been so collegial and so good to me actually,” he said.
Bednarz took a previous sabbatical in 2009- 2010, during which he completed “Shakespeare and the Truth of Love,” published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.
In addition to his interest in Shakespeare and art, Bednarz turns more and more to theories of adaptation. “I’ve increasingly looked at how a variety of different artists have made other things out of [Shakespeare’s] work, and converted his work into so many multi-form shapes that the term ‘Shakespeare’ becomes not a reference to an individual but to a body of imaginative exploration of what it means to be a human being.”
In his report to Bowditch, he said, “Artists continue to see themselves as Hamlet, from Eugène Delacroix’s romantic self-portrait as the melancholy Dane to Nicole Eisenman’s contemporary, gender-bending depiction of herself in character.”
Bednarz considers the humanities to be educationally and practically valuable. “I think the basic question that the humanities ask is, ‘What does it mean to be a human? What does it mean to have responsibilities with other human beings?’ If the humanities don’t address that, I think they abrogate their major responsibility, which is an interrogation of the very terms of what it means to be a human being,” he said.
He also considers the humanities to be valuable in terms of presenting oneself to businesses and in the workforce. “Aside from the big questions about the valuable life, the humanities, especially English, give students a way of articulating their positions in a society in which positions are often obfuscated, in which lies seem to dominate national politics. Giving students the ability to not only clarify what they think, but come to terms with major issues, to tell their stories, [is good]. The fundamental ability to express yourself is at the heart of every enterprise,” Bednarz said. Bednarz teaches Writing II: Research and Argumentation, World Literature I: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, and Shakespeare: Comedies and Histories, Non-Dramatic Poetry.
Bednarz recommends that everyone read Shakespeare. “He addresses everything that great literature should do. He has a profound understanding of the human heart, of the human intellect, of the way in which society can be often dominated by tyrants, how the illumination of the world is necessary again and again by a kind of vociferous fighting to make it right, and eloquence that has rarely been matched [and] never surpassed, plots and characters that are infinitely interesting and infinitely capable of being remade in ways that are surprising and unforeseen.”
He considers “Richard III” to be the most politically relevant play, and “Hamlet” to be eternally relevant, especially for the character “who explores interiority in terms of his own grief, in terms of his own sense of alienation, that remains especially for students in college.”
He also praises Homer and John Milton as authors who are as relevant today as they were in their times.
Bednarz’s sabbatical has enriched his teaching. “The more I look at Shakespeare, the more I see the way in which adaptations occur, the more I’m open to new ways of looking at Shakespeare, and it’s been an absolutely enriching [experience] to reappraise and reevaluate. The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that he changes every time you read him because you see new things and you’re a new person.”