Kid in a Candy Shop

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

— “As You Like It,” Act II, Scene VII

Renderings of the Globe Theater — the polygonal playhouse built at the end of the 16th century for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men — depict a stage that projects into the “yard,” the space where commoners, or groundlings, paid a mere penny to watch a play. Surrounding the open-air pit and forming the backbone of the structure, are three tiers of galleries, over which a thatched roof protects the seating arrangement and the stage from the elements. Behind the stage is the “tiring house,” the space where actors prepare to perform roles ranging from Julius Caesar to Juliet.

Linsly-Chittenden 101 doesn’t have a thatched roof or a concealed “tiring house” where professors can practice their lines before lectures. There is no open-air seating or painted “heavens” or trapdoor from the stage into “hell.” But there is a stage — though it isn’t elevated — and there are tiered rows of seats.

If the front of the room with its podium and projector is the area in front of the curtain, then Professor David Scott Kastan is the performer. Not an actor, perhaps, but at the very least a narrator relaying Shakespeare’s intentions to the class — whether he’s reciting a soliloquy from “Richard III,” playfully throwing chalk at students, or lamenting his hatred of PowerPoint. It was here in LC 101 that Kastan taught his popular course “Histories and Tragedies” last semester. Outside of this condensed Globe he was in the midst of putting the finishing touches on Shakespeare at Yale (SaY), a program that he has spearheaded and that offers daily Shakespeare events and highlights the University’s multiplicity of Bard-related resources.

Kastan describes his experiences discovering such resources as those of a “kid in a candy shop.” After just four years at Yale he has become a main player, looking to highlight the resources on campus and bring together departments that might otherwise rarely cross paths. And while he may teach Shakespeare’s tragedies, Kastan’s creation of SaY has given the University a light-hearted break from its recent less-than-appealing press.

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Long before Kastan first traveled to London’s reconstructed Globe — where he served on the Academic Advisory Council until the theater reopened in 1997 — he was a boy in Tucson with little interest in Shakespeare. The elder of two brothers, he was raised by his mother and step-father — his biological father, an English professor at the University of Arizona, died when he was just five.

Though he grew up out west, Kastan always felt more of an affinity for the kaleidoscope of signs, smells, tastes, languages, and colors that he found once his family moved east to New York City. “My mother likes to joke that in Tucson I’d sit in the playground dressed all in black and talk about noir fiction,” he laughs.

When it came time to choose a college, his affection for city life, with its walking culture and chances for spontaneous encounters, led him to Princeton, a school close enough by train but one that also epitomized the “quintessential college atmosphere.” While there, he engaged in “a whole series of sports I wasn’t good enough to play on the varsity level.”

Although he took a Shakespeare class as an undergraduate, Kastan didn’t feel any pull towards the material. His professor’s theatricality (“He was a frustrated actor, I think”) proved entertaining, but not intellectually stimulating. “I didn’t know I was a good student,” he says. “I did well, but didn’t take it all that seriously. But other people took me seriously and made me take myself more seriously.” It wasn’t until he became friendly with a young professor as a sophomore in college that Kastan first considered graduate school as a possibility. And it wasn’t until he arrived at the University of Chicago two years later that he first took an interest in the material that would become his sole passion — entirely by accident.

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A little over three months ago on November 23, 2011, Kastan appeared on “Charlie Rose” as part of Rose’s “Why Shakespeare” series, a look at the Bard’s relevance in contemporary affairs. He was joined by former Columbia student and current ABC News reporter Nick Schifrin. (Schifrin was the first reporter to broadcast from Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan after his death.) A little over ten years ago, Schifrin sat in Kastan’s Shakespeare lecture on the same day that the 9/11 attacks took place.

Rose opens the segment with a clip from director Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” a 1999 adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” It was the same play that Kastan taught his class at Columbia the Thursday after the planes hit the World Trade Center Towers. Columbia gave its professors the freedom to teach material that they deemed appropriate. “I was so conscious of how much had changed in the world my students were living in and I was living in, and also very conscious that some things hadn’t changed and some things still mattered,” Kastan tells Rose. “It seemed to me Shakespeare did.”

The play, a kind of “Elizabethan Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” seemed appropriate in a shattered world. “I hope the people making decisions on how to respond to the attacks read this play,” Kastan told his students, before launching into a discussion on the destructive cycle of revenge. By the end of the Thursday class, Kastan had received a standing ovation.

The decision to turn to Shakespeare was not always an obvious one. At the end of an uninspiring first semester of graduate school at UChicago, which he entered with the intention of studying modern poetry, Kastan considered switching to another university or following his peers’ oft-traveled path to law school. “I had various imaginations,” he muses. “Secretly I would have loved to be a painter.”

Yet on the bus to the airport, he struck up conversation with a fellow student whom he recognized but didn’t personally know. The student raved about a course he had taken with David Bevington, the well-known Shakespearean scholar and editor of such books as the “Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama” and “The Complete Works of Shakespeare.” Kastan took a gamble and returned to UChicago that spring to enroll in Bevington’s class. “I think it was more erotic than ethical,” he says of the class. “It felt good rather than it felt like some vocation — that came later.”

Shortly after becoming immersed in Shakespearean content for the first time in his academic career, Kastan chose to take a break from graduate school. The year was 1969 and regulations for military service in the Vietnam War had just changed. As the need for troops increased, deferments for graduate school were eliminated. “They had a lottery system,” explains Kastan. “It wasn’t clear whether or not I’d get drafted.” He opted for a teaching position in the Bronx — one that wasn’t without its own challenges. “It was arguably just as complicated as going off to war,” Kastan attests.

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In the years before Sesame Street started, “Mr. Kastan” taught the alphabet to a classroom of 40 kids in the south Bronx, all of whom were minority students and none of whom were raised by both parents. As “a lunatic trying to get them to read,” he became a performer, engaging students by juggling atop desks and exposing them to the city he knew and loved: “B” meant a trip to the Bronx Zoo where they met “Y,” the yak. “M” meant a venture to the market for milk and mallomars.

During one trip to the market, Kastan asked the class what else they could buy beginning with the letter “m.” Perhaps muffins, macaroni, or marshmallows? His students had a different “m” in mind. “Marijuana!” one boy quickly chimed in. Kastan blanched. “I don’t think they sell that here,” he answered, hoping to move quickly past the issue. But the boy was prepared with an answer of his own. Pointing to a man nearby, he asserted, “Yes they do. He sells it!” “I thought, oh dear, they know the neighborhood better than I do,” Kastan jokes.

After a year of teaching first grade, Kastan switched to teaching senior English and coaching basketball. While both experiences were satisfying and no doubt entertaining, he found himself returning home every afternoon to read Shakespeare and Chaucer. His love of scholarship sent him back to the University of Chicago, where he finished his degree in just two and a half years, as opposed to the typical five. “It was a mercurial passing through,” he says of the experience.

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When Jim Shapiro, a fellow Shakespeare scholar and the Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia, first started teaching his Shakespeare lecture at the university in 1985, he turned to his close friend Kastan for advice. “He gave me a joke or a line for ‘The Tempest’ to get the class going,” Shapiro says. “He’d give me his best stuff and it would always work, even if I was skeptical.” At the time, Kastan was still a professor at Dartmouth, where he taught from 1973 to 1987.

On October 8, 1985, Kastan remembers reading the New York Times obituary for Bernard Beckerman, a Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia who specialized in Shakespeare. “I repressed a slight sense of hope that maybe I’d have a job [at Columbia],” he says. During his last year at Dartmouth, he took a position as a visiting professor at Columbia, a job that soon after resulted in an offer for a permanent position. He thought for a mere 10 seconds before taking the opportunity to return to his beloved New York City.

By the time Kastan began offering his own Shakespeare lecture at the university, Shapiro had been teaching his course for two years. “Students would go in to him and say, ‘We love your class Professor Kastan, but why are you retelling Professor Shapiro’s jokes?’” Shapiro says, laughing. The collaboration between the two professors led to morning coffee discussions, second-hand book shopping, and a team-taught undergraduate seminar, among other joint projects. “He’s one of the few people who sees around the corner, so to speak,” Shapiro says. “He’s probably the most generous scholar to younger scholars in the business. He shares ideas, gives ideas away. Academics for the most part tend to be hoarders rather than sharers.”

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Inside Kastan’s office is a mix of the playful and the scholarly. Each wall is lined with bookshelves, the contents of which are crowded with gold bound editions of Shakespeare plays, Renaissance textbooks, and other fading editions that spill onto the floor where they rest in thick piles. The shelves also house old newspaper clippings, caricaturist Shakespeare figurines, and the 2004 Time magazine cover chronicling the Red Sox’s underdog victory, one which Kastan had feared he’d never live to see.

Centered on the room’s back wall is a framed painting of a slightly lopsided Shakespeare that Kastan’s daughter, Marina, created when she was six. Now 26, she is finishing her master’s in library science and is looking to work as an archivist in a rare book room, no doubt a desire that arose from her father’s deep-seated interest in the history of the book. To the left of the painting is another photograph of the Sox’s win, this one signed by David Ortiz. It was a gift from Kastan’s stepson, a student at Northwestern who is pursuing a career in reality television production. Kastan’s wife of seven years, Jane, the Special Advisor to the Dean of Yale Law School, is featured in various photographs that are scattered along the bookshelves.

It’s partially due to her that Kastan ended up in this LC office four years ago. “I career counseled him,” she says of the decision to leave Columbia, where he had chaired the Department of English and Comparative Literature since 2004. The position didn’t come without its difficulties in a department that was often divided, and the choice to step down was in many ways just as difficult as the job itself had proven. “We don’t treat former chairs very well — people who have a lot of power and then don’t,” Shapiro explains. “We tend to kick around a little bit in a rough and tumble department like Columbia.” When the time came for Kastan to again embark on an alternative path, he responded to Yale, a school that had been wooing him with a position and its vast collection of Shakespearean resources since 2005.

Kastan’s first unsupervised visit to Yale — one without the lunches, lectures, and dinners arranged for prospective faculty — came on a fortunate day. “It was a slightly cold evening, kind of misty, and all these people were running around in weird costumes,” he says. “It was like being in a Fellini movie. I thought, this is either the most creative place or there is something just utterly bizarre about the water supply.” The chilly evening was Tap Night. It also proved to be a tap night of sorts for Kastan — he took his chances and officially began at the university at the start of the following academic year.

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On a Wednesday night in a seminar room located a few floors above LC 101, thirteen English graduate students are seated around a long table. With a few exceptions they are clothed in what might be deemed traditional hipster garb — plaid button-downs, worn jeans, Oxford lace-ups. On an adjacent table is a loaf of bread and cheese. Once six o’clock hits they decide to dig in rather than wait for “David,” who’s bringing the wine. Kastan arrives slightly late dressed in his usual attire: jeans, a polo, and a suit jacket. He hurriedly rushes in sans liquor, then dashes upstairs to his office and returns a few minutes later with two plastic bags filled with $10 bottles of wine.

The class isn’t one that can be found in the Bluebook. In fact, it’s not really a class at all. If it were, it might be called a dissertation workshop. In reality, it’s an informal conversation between the students and Kastan, who doesn’t sit at the head of the table, but instead along the side. Students are there to offer critiques of each other’s dissertations. There is no credit involved and no minced words. “I think this is a brilliant paper … but not a very good one,” opens one student in response to his peer’s work.

The informal gathering is something that Kastan has long encouraged in his relationships with students. Just like those early field trips in the Bronx, education isn’t limited to the classroom, and Kastan’s position is more that of the wise older friend than the distant professor. “He doesn’t think here’s your academic work and then here’s private life, perfectly segregated,” says Jesse Lander, the current Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a former student of Kastan’s from Columbia. “In fact, there’s a kind of continuum and people can go out and have drinks together … it’s a conversation that flows across those [academic] boundaries.”

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A few minutes before he’s called to the podium to give the opening lecture for the “Remembering Shakespeare” exhibit, Kastan paces, head down, behind the stage. The talk is being held in the Beinecke, in a second-floor space that is even darker than usual as fading afternoon light seeps dimly through the translucent marble. The center of the floor is interrupted by a rectangular glass column that rises, filled with aged stacks of books, from the bottom floor of the library. To the left of the column, row after row of seats are filled with students and visitors — there aren’t enough chairs and eager guests wind around the staircase to listen. “I’m thrilled, honored, and a little terrified,” Kastan remarks, referring to the crowd, after his co-curator, Kathryn James, introduces him.

The same three words could describe the scope of the project he dreamed up at 3 a.m. in the spring of 2010, when he sent an e-mail to University President Richard Levin with a rough sketch of his idea: a program that would envelop every part of the campus in some aspect of Shakespeare in the Spring 2012 semester. By six o’clock that morning he had received a response: Levin enthusiastically gave him the green light.

For Kastan, coordinating the Festival is a way to avoid his most distressing concern about himself. “I think my great fear is that fundamentally I’m lazy,” he says. “To prevent that from being realized I overcommit to things so that I can avoid that terrible self-knowledge.” It’s this same fear that drives him to embark on multiple editing and writing projects at the same time, from editions of “Paradise Lost” that eager Directed Studies students place before him, requesting his signature, to the “Barnes and Noble Shakespeare,” for which he is the series editor.

These editing projects, which Kastan acknowledges could easily be perceived by some as fussy and tedious endeavors, provide an unexpected pleasure. It’s one that carries over into classroom lectures and seminar discussions about the meaning of a section of dialogue in “Hamlet” or a single line in “Macbeth” or even a single word in a sonnet. “It’s sometimes a fantasy,” he admits of understanding Shakespeare’s intended meaning. “But it’s an enabling fantasy. It’s the thought that you might be able to get it right.”

The performance in the Beinecke is one of the rare moments when Kastan seems less than self-assured as a public speaker, losing his place in his speech and stumbling over a few words. While he’s used to giving public lectures for students, scholars, and the general public, this late Wednesday afternoon in the Beinecke is different: the large crowd is an acknowledgment of Shakespeare at Yale’s success, and, in turn, Kastan’s efforts to showcase the Bard’s applicability within and beyond the classroom. Although his students might attribute this ability to enliven the material to his talents as an entertainer, Kastan doesn’t consider himself a performer in the traditional sense of the word. “To the degree that I perform, what I perform is my own delight in studying Shakespeare,” he asserts. “But that’s a different kind of performance.”

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