If you love the life of the mind and not the modern university, this novel is for you. I picked up Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement because I had fallen in love with its predecessor, Dear Committee Members. Schumacher’s previous novel consists of a series of letters of recommendations (“LORs”) from Creative Writing Professor Jason T. Fitger, each one more ridiculous than the last, which eventually weave a story of love, heartbreak, hope, loss, and professorial frustration. I was surprised when the series of LORs made me cry. So I had high hopes for The Shakespeare Requirement, which picks up Professor Fitger’s story a few years later.
Professor Fitger has become Payne University’s English Department chair, and he must fight off the Economics Department’s slow encroachment upon English’s resources. The evil Economics chair wants to do away with the humanities, and to save English, Fitger must rally together an assistant with a foster pet preoccupation, a T. S. Eliot scholar with a miniature donkey hobby farm, a Shakespearean with unbending principles, and ten other ragtag department members. Meanwhile, Fitger’s ex-wife is dating the dean, and a freshman named Angela struggles to make the transition from a very traditional Christian home to life at the University. You couldn’t ask for a better cast of characters.
I have a few critiques and a lot of praise for this book. Let’s start with the critiques.
Despite my high hopes, I struggled through the first chapter. Schumacher wrote The Shakespeare Requirement as a traditional novel, with the twist that she constantly changes the perspective. At any moment, you might be seeing the world through any of the half-dozen primary characters. The quick changes of perspective can make it difficult to ground yourself as the reader, especially in chapter one, and it takes a few chapters after that for the story to pick up.
Chapter one also suffers from what can feel to university outsiders as over-exaggerations. Economics can seem just a little too utilitarian, English a little too dysfunctional. You don’t see any good sides to the power-hungry Economics chair, and the English department has twice as many floors as Economics but is somehow constantly cramped. As Schumacher introduces each of the characters, they can feel a bit caricaturish, though they develop more fully as the story progresses. I’d defer to Schumacher’s many years as a University professor on whether these aspects of her story can be a bit much, but I found myself eye rolling a bit, even though I wanted to love the story right off the bat. If I were her editor, I would have recommended diminishing some of these problems by cutting chapter one and beginning the story with its second chapter.
As a lover of Dear Committee Members, I also expected the story to pick up a bit more from the previous book. Schumacher makes brief references to the previous story and its characters. But, for example, I would have expected additional mentions of Fitger’s beloved student who took his life, as the event had changed Fitger and influenced his decision to become department chair.
Nonetheless, as The Shakespeare Requirement unfolds, it becomes an enthralling story full of heart and realist passion, peppered with humor ranging from subtle jokes on the characters (“He didn’t care for the dash as a unit of punctuation. It was too breezy and too offhand. It was–“) to uproariously funny remarks. One of my favorites:
“Fitger wondered about the mental well-being of the sort of person who would consider farming–one of the most precarious and physically dangerous ways to make a living–a weekend hobby or source of fun. Did other citizens relax on the weekends by spending their free time working at miniature construction sites?”
Schumacher’s descriptions are also brilliant. She describes one professor as slouching down the hall “with the posture of a half-parenthesis.” At one point, Fitger unthinkingly mixes medication and wine, and the result was that “there was a smile on his face that he seemed to have borrowed from someone else.” Later in the book, Fitger finds sleep to be “a distant country to which he had once again been denied a visa.” In these moments, Schumacher demonstrates a probative mind and sheds new light on the world around us.
Though largely a comedy, The Shakespeare Requirement blooms in moments of deep pathos. After reading the one-paragraph story of the death of a professor’s child, I had to pause and put the book down. Little acts of kindness surprise and delight the reader throughout. This story is driven by the endurance of the human spirit, often despite itself. Even dysfunction, chaos, and utilitarian attacks can come together to make meaning. One must only be willing to sit down and receive what’s been written down.
You can order a copy here.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.