Lightning Presentations & Questions, Who Owns Shakespeare?, MLA 22 Roundtable

Marshelle Woodward:

Deprioritized Shakespeare

In 2019, Mills College in Oakland, California sold its copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio as part of a budget stabilization plan that led, despite overwhelming faculty opposition, to the closure of multiple academic departments and the termination of five tenured faculty positions, including one in English. … In March, 2021, the college’s president announced that Mills would transition from a degree–granting institution to an “institute” that promotes women’s leadership and “student success.” For this roundtable, I propose to reflect on the disciplinary and personal ramifications of Academic Program Prioritization, a budgetary allocation paradigm that gained popularity after the 2009 financial crisis and which has informed many recent austerity measures that threaten the future of the humanities disciplines.

“What does it mean for literary studies if even Shakespeare can be “deprioritized” when universities decide that owning his works is less profitable than selling them at market?”

“How can scholars organize in opposition to budgetary trends that would rob future students not only of Shakespeare, but of the humanistic inquiry that he, rightly or wrongly, is so often seen to embody?”

Eric Johnson:


Everybody Owns Shakespeare


The presenter will weave his own experiences as a “non-traditional Shakespearean” who created one of the most-used Shakespeare-related web sites in the world, and through it became one of the directors at a Shakespeare-related academic institution. He will share his observations about the impediments and affordances that Shakespeare studies offers to newcomers, and will suggest ways to keep the Shakespearean world healthy with continued infusions of energy and ingenuity from those who wish to contribute.

“In what ways have digital tools opened up ownership of Shakespeare to more people?”

“Does the ubiquitous availability of Shakespeare decentralize and devalue so-called expertise, and does it matter?”

Sharon Ugalde:

I propose to explore the dislodging of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the works of contemporary visual artists of Spain. The visual artist Marina Núñez (b. 1966) breathes new life into Ophelia. The historically debilitating cultural constructs inflicted on Ophelia become visible. In some of Núñez’s works the poor creature flaunts her unbearable subjugation, appearing in contorted body positions, tied down, and covered with growths. In later works, cyborg Ophelias shoot out of test tubes into unexplored realms of possibilities. Ambiguity, both human and scientific experiment, is an affirmation of unstable, multiple identities. … Photographers Alex Francés (1962) and Carmela García (1964) enlist Ophelia to address the impact of the social construction of gender on the queer community. Beyond the exploration of gender identities, Ophelia enables Francés to explore the basic human need for contact with the Other, and García to capture utopic visions of the collective experience. Since the year 2000, many artists favor Ophelia in a context of staged self-portraits or the theatricalization of identities that highlight affective content. For example, in the series entitled Quietud (2008) [Stillness], Rocío Verdejo (1982) conveys a hopeful state of peace and tranquility, while Leila Amat (1987), in Aristócrata Suicida (2013) [The Suicidal Aristocratic Girl], dramatizes surrender in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

“Is a character dislodged from a Shakespearian text and manipulated by an artist, still Shakespeare?”


“Can the increasing preeminence of visual culture eclipse the dramatist’s literary language?”

Katherine Gillen

Contesting White Ownership of Shakespeare in Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s ¡O Romeo!


The idea that Shakespeare is white property, recently articulated by Arthur Little, remains prominent in theaters, including in the US-Mexico Borderlands where, as Ruben Espinosa writes, Shakespeare’s works are “often perceived to be less accessible to certain users, such as Latinxs” (“Beyond The Tempest,” 47). Chicanx theater makers, however, contest assumptions about who owns Shakespeare, demonstrating that Shakespeare can be transformed—and to an extent decolonized—when it is removed from the individualistic sphere of white, Anglo property relations and integrated into the collective, community-oriented ethos of Chicanx theater, or teatro.


In this presentation, I look specifically at Olga Sanchez Saltveit’s ¡O Romeo!, a collectively created, multilingual play devised at Milagro Theater for a Dia de los Muertos festival. The play dramatizes Shakespeare’s dying hours, in which he attempts to complete a play set in colonial Mexico. In keeping with the ethos of Dia de los Muertos, Shakespeare needs Indigenous spirituality to process his grief over his son’s death and, it seems, to write an effective “American” play. Saltveit and her collaborators suggest that regenerative Shakespeare performance is possible only when Shakespeare is extracted from white property relations. Relocated to the teatro, Shakespeare is rendered a fallible, dying interlocutor whose plays can be deconstructed, reimagined, and co-created to serve communal ends, thus disrupting colonial ideas of ownership.

“How does the question “Who owns Shakespeare?” connect to the idea of Shakespeare as white property?”

“How might we disrupt the idea that some people own Shakespeare? What frameworks other than ownership might we use to think about Shakespeare’s value, especially in when we talk about BIPOC engagements with Shakespeare?”

 Miles Grier

Shakespearishness in Prestige Television


In [my brief comments and in our discussion], I want to try to identify precisely what distinguishes a show that engages productively with Shakespeare’s plots, characters, and techniques from one that merely wants to share in the aura and potential profits that attend his great tragedies. Consider it the difference between the Shakespearean and the Shakespearish. Using Empire and Succession as case studies, I want to try to identify the tactics employed in their respective press campaigns while also specifying the precise use each makes of Shakespeare in their shows. The distinction I intend to draw enters well-trod territory in studies of adaptation and appropriation, fidelity, and ethics but also allows revisiting of key questions.

“Is it possible for Shakespeare’s corpus to be vulnerable to exploitation?”

“Is it possible that a comparatively privileged creator from a minoritized group can have the cultural capital to appropriate, that is to steal, the work of subaltern populations?”

Deanne Williams, respondent:

Girls Own Shakespeare

“As dramatic characters, Shakespeare’s girls may be described as “princesses”: representatives of a highly rarified élite. How can these privileged white girls speak to today’s pressing issues of social inequality?”

“What might it mean to have a girl “speak for” Shakespeare, an embodiment of patriarchal power?”

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