ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

The Unkindest Cut Executive Summary

April 2015

Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have inspired readers and audiences for centuries, from one end of the world to the other. He is often simply called “The Bard,” honored by statesmen and philosophers, as well as poets and critics. Great authors over the centuries have paid him homage. John Milton described how Shakespeare built for himself an immortal monument “in our wonder and astonishment” that would be the envy of kings.  John Dryden observed, “when he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too.” For T.S. Eliot, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them, there is no third.”

Alexis de Tocqueville recounted that most American pioneers’ cabins had copies of the plays. Space was tight as miners and trappers traveled West on the American frontier, but The Bard traveled with them to remote and austere camps.1 Historian Jonathan Rose tells how in 19th-century England J. R. Clynes rose from labor in the textile mills to become deputy leader of the House of Commons. Clynes recounted how he discovered in Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness,” and wondered, “How it would upset the world if men lived up to it.”  Clynes, as a friend put it, was “the only man who ever settled a trade dispute by citing Shakespeare.”2

In Japan, Macbeth inspired Akira Kurosawa’s mid-century masterpiece, Throne of Blood. Ran followed later, inspired by King Lear. From West Side Story to the Lion King, The Bard is the unfailing fountain of ideas for contemporary state and film. Such is Shakespeare’s reputation in Germany that scholars estimate his works have been staged more often there than anywhere else in the world, more than any single German author.3 One could truly say that the plays performed in London’s Globe Theatre went on to capture the entire globe.

Except, it seems, for English majors at America’s most prestigious colleges and universities. And there’s the rub. The Bard, who is the birthright of the English speaking world, has no seat of honor.

That is not an opinion. It is an empirical fact.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has researched how Shakespeare fits into English majors’ curricula at 52 of the nation’s leading colleges and universities—the U.S. News & World Report “Top 25” Liberal Arts Colleges and the “Top 25” National Universities. We have found our Bard suffering “the unkindest cut of all.”

At most universities, English majors were once required to study Shakespeare closely as an indispensable foundation for the understanding of English language and literature. But today—at the elite institutions we examined, public and private, large and small, east and west—he is required no more.

The basic finding is unambiguous. Not even one out of ten of the institutions ACTA surveyed required English majors to take a single course devoted to Shakespeare. And as the schools relax requirements relating to Shakespeare and other great authors, courses that have more to do with popular culture and contemporary issues are multiplying.


To determine where Shakespeare stands in today’s curriculum, ACTA surveyed English departments at leading universities and liberal arts colleges. Appendix A gives a full listing of the schools studied, with summaries of their English major requirements.

Today, a mere 4 of these 52 colleges and universities require English majors to take a course focused on Shakespeare. Those institutions are: Harvard, University of California-Berkeley, U.S. Naval Academy, and Wellesley College.4

Top 25 National Universities: Two schools require Shakespeare
Top 25 Liberal Arts Colleges: Two require Shakespeare
Ivy League: One requires Shakespeare

What do these figures mean? For starters, of the Ivy League universities, only one requires its English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. Only two of the top 25 national universities, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, have a Shakespeare requirement. The top 25 liberal arts colleges fare no better: only two require English majors to study Shakespeare. It is a sad irony that not even Amherst College, which administers the Folger Shakespeare Library, requires its English majors to take a course that focuses on Shakespeare.

Thus, 48 of the 52 schools we surveyed allow English majors—which often include future English teachers—to graduate without studying in depth the language’s greatest writer.

At most colleges and universities, Shakespeare courses can be taken as options within the major, as described in Appendix A. And yet, as a quick glance at existing requirements shows, Shakespeare holds no favored place. A course called “Pulp Fictions: Popular Romance from Chaucer to Tarantino” at the University of Pennsylvania counts the same as a Shakespeare course toward the “Early Literature to 1660” requirement. The catalog description: “… readable, often salacious, and certainly never dull, these ‘pulp fictions’ reveal complex worlds beneath their seemingly simple or gritty exteriors” suggests an interesting course, but it is no substitute for the seminal study of Shakespeare.  So also for “Gender, Sexuality and Literature: Our Cyborgs, Our Selves” that fulfilled Penn’s “Early Literature to 1660” requirement in Fall 2014. At Swarthmore and Bowdoin, “Renaissance Sexualities” can substitute for Shakespeare to fulfill the “Pre-1800” requirement. At Cornell, where undergraduate English majors need to take three pre-1800 courses, Spring 2015 choices include “Love and Ecstasy: Forms of Devotion in Medieval English Literature,” which addresses the question, “What do love, torture, and ecstasy all have in common?” The previous year, “Art of the Insult” fulfilled the same requirement, as did “Blood Politics,” whose course description begins, “Blood is everywhere. From vampire shows to video games, our culture seems to be obsessed with it.”

End Notes

  1. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Shakespeare in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Jennifer Lee Carrell, “How the Bard Won the West,” Smithsonian, 29. 5 (August, 1998) 98-107.
  2. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) 123.
  3. Wilhelm Hortmann, Shakespeare on the German Stage: Volume 2, The Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  4. Although a number of schools require majors to take a survey of British medieval and Renaissance literature, they do not guarantee such courses will provide the in depth study of Shakespeare appropriate for a college student majoring in English. For the purposes of this study, therefore, we do not classify these courses as fulfillment of a Shakespeare requirement.