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Student theatre may be a staple of undergraduate life today, but in Shakespeare’s time it was controversial and provocative, and may have inspired some of ‘The Bard’s’ most important pieces.

A window into university life

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries student theatre was at the heart of debates about gender, identity, propriety, morals and theatrical spectacle.

Dr Daniel Blank from our Department of English Studies believes that student theatre offered Shakespeare (who did not attend university) a window into the world of academia, which he used to inspire characters such as Hamlet and Macbeth, and depictions of academic culture in some of his works.

Critiquing academia, reflecting debate

Across his research into this less-known part of Shakespeare’s history, Dr Blank found a number of examples of the playwright’s interest in university life and in particular student theatre.

One example reveals the connections between Hamlet and William Gager’s Hippolytus, a controversial university play that was performed at Oxford in 1592, which critiqued and mocked the insularity of the university.

Shakespeare’s most famous student, Hamlet, displays the same prejudices as Gager’s protagonist, whilst famous scenes, like Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia and the acting troupe that visits Elsinore, reflect debates at the time about student theatre and the morality of performance.

New publication

Dr Blank believes the parallels his research has found between Shakespeare’s work and plays performed by students at Oxford and Cambridge, illustrate the playwright’s awareness and curiosity about academic life.

This research, published in a book entitled Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, challenges the assumption that because Shakespeare did not go to university, he did not have any knowledge of university theatre.

Find out more:

English Studies

Ranked 4th by the Guardian University Guide 2022 and 36th in the in the 2022 QS World University Rankings by subject, the English Studies department boasts award-winning poets and a recently named New Generation Thinker amongst our teaching staff. 

Our broad subject range is made possible by our large and thriving community of more than 900 students, researchers and academics, with a busy programme of events including lectures, seminars, reading and discussion groups. 

Feeling inspired? Visit our English Studies webpages for more information on our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.