James Kuzner understands how Shakespeare thinks. He teaches Shakespeare, writes about Shakespeare, speaks with energy and excitement about Shakespeare’s work. He gets Shakespeare.
So you don’t expect an interview to start like this: “I should reveal that I did not like Shakespeare — not just in high school but even as an undergraduate. I felt the language was alien and alienating, and I felt a real resistance in myself and in the text. I went to graduate school thinking I was going to do American literature.”
The turnaround happened quickly at Johns Hopkins, where Kuzner earned his doctorate. Two mentors — Jonathan Goldberg and Richard Halpern — made the “strangeness and peculiarity” of Shakespeare’s language fascinating; Shakespeare now seemed to speak to current concerns — the nature of selfhood, what it means to be free, what it means to be in love. Everything came together.
“It was the very thing I had found forbidding that I now found seductive,” Kuzner said. “So many of Shakespeare’s formulations are compressed and complex. They demand that you pause over them, stop, and figure out exactly what is going on. Shakespeare is incredibly dense and rich.”
That focus on Shakespeare’s literary power still lights up a classroom even for students who may have encountered his work in performances or in films more often than on the printed page. “That's not to say performance isn’t important in my teaching, but there are things we can do in class and in our writing that can’t be done in performance,” Kuzner said. “Often, the way we’ll start talking about a play is by looking at a filmic adaptation and thinking about what’s in the film that’s not represented in the text. Is the film faithful or is it a departure?”
That morning, for example, Kuzner’s “Shakespeare: Love and Friendship” class began by viewing a 10-minute clip of the Baz Luhrmann Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. There is no balcony; Romeo and Juliet end up in a pool. “Does that illuminate? You get some really interesting answers,” Kuzner said. “In that scene, Romeo talks about being ‘newly baptized,’ and Juliet talks about her love being ‘as boundless as the sea.’ So Luhrmann translates that to a pool.”
There is more to Renaissance literature than William Shakespeare, of course. “My first book was about Shakespeare, Spenser, Marvell, and Milton, going from the 1590s into the 1670s,” Kuzner said. “Partly because of the political discord, that period was a time of intense experimentation in thought and in art. These figures were thinking about ideas that are still central – love, freedom, selfhood – and their ways of thinking are at once different and relevant to how we think about them.”
Kuzner is teaching “Fantasies of Milton,” a course that underscores the current-day relevance of the Renaissance. The readings place Milton — mostly Paradise Lost — side-by-side with modern-day fantasy novels like C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. “It’s another way we might think about Milton,” Kuzner said.
Are there modern writers whose creations have that same freshness and inventiveness? Kuzner pauses and reflects. “Shakespeare was a literary dramatist and therefore a poet, so you’d almost certainly have to look at poets rather than novelists or dramatists. Emily Dickinson is one that jumps out at me. Her language always seems new no matter how many times I read her. Wallace Stevens also. Every time I read them it’s like I'm reading them for the first time.
“One of literature’s functions is exactly that — to make things seem always new. That is something Shakespeare achieved.”