James Shapiro

This professor has earned a CULPA gold nugget

May 2020

Yes, believe the hype. Shapiro lives and breathes these plays, and hopefully, you will too by the end of this class. He's a wonderful pedagogue and his performance-driven approach to these plays really emphasizes how Shakespeare presents the complexities of all sorts of human relationships.

Nov 2019

Loved this class. I had tried to get into his class for five years and finally made it into this one. I never thought of Shakespeare and America together but after this class I don't think I could ever ignore the connection between the two. His prompts definitely prod the class to think and discuss. But thinking is paramount. The small class size allows the students to inspire each other and rise to the discussion at hand while at the same time revisiting American History in another context. And that context included Shakespeare. Who knew? You will never be able to think of Abraham Lincoln and his assassination the same way again. The perfect class that shows what Columbia is about, which is connecting seemingly disparate moments and people in ways that change your life.

May 2014

This is a review for Prof. Shapiro's Fall 2013 seminar. (Side note -- think he's on sabbatical this coming year 2014-2015, but he'll be back after. Take his class. All of them.) I love Prof. Shapiro in lecture, and really glad I got to take a seminar with him. In this seminar, we read every single poem of Shakespeare's, which was simultaneously awesome and horrible. Every week we would focus on a couple of sonnets he wrote, or once we got into the longer poems, passages in, e.g. Venus & Adonis. In retrospect, you didn't even have to do all the reading, since we definitely didn't discuss all 116 or whatever sonnets that Shakespeare wrote, but I did all of them anyway and I think Shapiro inspires that kind of dedication (especially since he says in the beginning of class that everyone will get at least a B+). I kinda wish we had heard more of his voice in seminar, but I learned a lot from the other students in class which I guess is the point. Found the reading load to be doable, but I don't think I would ever call it 'light' ... we had a paper due every week (600-800 words) so it always felt like a scramble to get the reading and the paper done. 600 words doesn't sound like a lot, but when you have to come up with a good argument and back it up in 600 words AND make it a final draft (Shapiro is huge on revisions) it can be really difficult. I definitely think I became a better writer over the course of the semester, but I wish I had put in more effort and time, though there's only so many hours in a day (or a week). Shapiro graded our papers on a check/check-plus/check-minus scale and the highest grade I ever got was a check/check-plus. I do think there's some satisfaction in doing better on the papers, but also felt that Shapiro was purposefully harsher on grading in the beginning of the semester so it would seem like we all improved. Or maybe I actually did improve. Not sure. The writing workshop was super helpful though as were his comments (of which there were always many). When I write my papers for other classes now I definitely think about what Shapiro has said about my writing in the past and try to not make the same mistakes. In a workshop he had us all read anonymous sentences out loud from papers he'd gotten that week and fix them up -- it's really illuminating to read just one sentence out of dozens that you've written and realize how f***ing convoluted it is. Also he's super kind, and super funny. He told the greatest stories. Tips -- do the reading early so you have time to come up with an argument and execute, go to office hours cause Shapiro is one of the most delightful profs I've taken at Columbia... a true gem in the English department here which is a gem in itself.

May 2014

Professor Shapiro is a WONDERFUL professor. He is enthusiastic, presents difficult material clearly and in a stimulating manner, and is extremely kind and approachable. Acting out the plays in class clarified dense text and made it exciting. The contextual information (political and social history, biographies of the play writes, etc) helped to create a trajectory in my head of how tragedies and comedies changed in response to one another and the period in which they were written. The only time I have had another professor give such critical feedback to my writing was in U Writing. Professor Shapiro puts a lot of thought into his comments to help his students strengthen their writing and thinking. I would recommend everyone take a class with Professor Shapiro during their junior and/or senior year. It may be more difficult for non-English majors, but his enthusiasm and clear teaching style makes the material less intimidating, and he works diligently to help students become better writers. Go to his office hours. Seriously, go to them. Shapiro is a boss in his field and one of the kindest professors I've ever met. He loves getting to know his students one-on-one and is extremely helpful with his writing assignments if you actually show up and talk to him.

Aug 2013

]This was my favorite class of the semester by far. Shapiro is an incredible lecturer, and his passion for the works is truly infectious. I was hesitant to take this class because I wasn't super interested in the material (1600s non-Shakespeare drama), but he definitely changed that for me. He jokes that he lives in that time period, but he really does seem to have an endless amount of knowledge. He began every play talking about the playwright and situating him in the time period, and we generally acted out one (or sometimes more) scene(s) from each play -- Shapiro is big on the theatrical aspect of the works and how you feel in the setting, whether it's a big theater or a small theater, etc. We learned a lot about that sort of stuff which not every professor does. Also acting out the plays was hilarious to watch, at times. He also encourages class participation from everyone as much as possible. He caps his classes at around 60 students so that there's an intimate class/lecture environment, and it definitely works. He's pretty good about cutting people off who go too off topic, too. The only thing I felt Shapiro didn't do enough of was detailed textual analysis (eg syntax, diction, etc.) but the rest of the class more than made up for this and I really didn't think that much of it. He's an incredible professor and I would honestly recommend his class to just about anyone. He comes off a bit intimidating the first class but as has been said before he is really wonderful and caring of his students. He is really helpful during office hours and encourages all his students to go to talk about the final paper. I was pretty intimidated during office hours but did feel like I got some good feedback on my paper before handing it in. Also, he's absolutely hilarious.

Apr 2013

I don't know why this man doesn't have a gold star. The first few classes made me want to shit my pants (he barked so gruffly at the students who arrived late that I was genuinely scared to go to the bathroom mid-lecture), but you will quickly learn that his no-nonsense persona is just part of his teaching act; he is one of the warmest, most generous, most dedicated people I know beneath that spiky shell. His classroom, after all, is a theatre: every lecture begins with audience participation, and he thoughtfully and successfully uses your gut reactions to each reading as a starting point for more serious discussion. He wants you to read Shakespeare as much as you think about how you FEEL when reading a specific play or poem. He also cares immensely about your writing: he will treat everything you write as if you were submitting it to the copy desk at The New Yorker, and he will give you sharp, thorough feedback on your work throughout the writing process (I still get goosebumps when I read his comments on my final essay). Basically, you are doing yourself a terrible disservice by not taking this class before you graduate. He is, by far, my favorite teacher, and his lectures made me feel more alive than those of any other professor at Columbia.

Oct 2012

Shakespeare Shapiro is an old-school professor. He's strict when it comes to cell phones, punctuality, and doing assignments--although he is flexible about deadlines. He can be aggressive and make students uncomfortable, but it seems more for the purpose of getting a good answer out of the class than it is an attempt to belittle anyone. Shapiro is interesting and has a unique perspective. His class is the second I've taken at Columbia that I looked forward to and didn't want to miss.

May 2011

There aren't so many reviews of Shapiro's seminars on here, so I figured I'd add my 2 cents. This was the best class I've taken at Columbia. And, I've taken classes with pretty much every well-reviewed professor in the English Department. Shapiro has a truly dynamic personality, and he ran our class smoothly and intelligently. Shapiro is not only insightful and engaging, but hilariously funny. He's a true delight. Yet, these qualities are not what truly set him apart. After all, there are a lot of professors at Columbia who run great seminars. The real cherry on top is the feedback you will receive on your writing. Although most professors only grade and critique your essay's argument, Shapiro cares deeply about your writing style. Every week, we were required to hand in a 600 word paper, which would be promptly returned 7 days later bleeding with red ink. Shapiro's writing philosophy is deceptively simple: don't write anything you wouldn't say. Over the course of the semester, my writing style went from dense and jargony to crisp and gripping. Shapiro doesn't give your papers letter grades. Instead, he operates on a ✓/✓+/✓- system. At the end of the semester, he met with all of us individually, and gave us a grade based on our class and writing performance. Don't freak out if you can't seem to crack a ✓+. He doesn't grade you cumulatively, but rather based on where you end up (I only got a ✓+ on the last paper). I've never worked so hard for a class, and never been prouder to receive an A. Also, he got us tickets to see King Lear with Derek Jacobi, which proved to be the best Shakespeare production I've ever seen. Take this class, and never look back.

Dec 2010

Shapiro is a cool guy, but having taken Shakespeare I with him, I'm actually left feeling pretty ambivalent about the class. Sure, I left with a heightened ability to read Shakespeare texts, but I have a feeling this has more to do with the sheer number of texts we had to read than with Shapiro's lectures. Yes, Shapiro keeps you awake at 9 AM, there's lots of fun acting, etc. etc. but the class itself isn't particularly intellectual. This is frustrating, because, as your in-depth and amusingly harsh paper comments will illuminate, Shapiro's a really smart guy. His lectures though, with the exception of a couple, seem dumbed down and didn't inspire me in the way that a lot of other professors in the English department have. Often, the class was left sitting in silence while Shapiro asked inane, obvious questions that no one wanted to answer. Assignments (the final paper and final exam) are pretty interesting and get you thinking, but I couldn't help wishing, while I took the final, that Shapiro had toned down the entertainment and his personality in order to teach the answers to these sorts of stimulating questions. If you're not put off by this class's lack of content, by all means take it. But I'd carefully consider your choice, especially if you have options to take a class with Jenny Davidson or Erik Gray.

Dec 2010

Take his class. Do it. These are not boring lectures - Shapiro lopes around the room cold-calling, staging scenes, and asking intimate questions about bodily functions. He isn't quite a close-reading kind of guy, although he does get into the nuances of language. But really, it's a comprehensive, big-ideas class. Because Shapiro's interested in Shakespeare's process and the circumstances of the Elizabethan literary scene (yes), this class is as much history as it is literature. It's sort of like watching a Ken Burns documentary about Shakespeare instead of taking a class on him, only with a lot of mimed sex that sometimes you have to get up and participate in. (Avoidable by consistently sitting in the last row, like a leper.)

Dec 2010

The fact that Shapiro's 9am, 6th floor Hamilton Shakespeare class is consistently one of the hardest lectures to get into ought to tell you something. This semester he chatted with Julie Taymor as part of the NYFF and he jets off every summer to consult for The Globe. He teaches Shakespeare not just as texts but as plays that force the reader, director, actor, and audience to answer hard questions and make difficult interpretative decisions (some of which you can't be aware of from reading the text alone). Almost every class he makes a group of students get up and act out certain key scenes to drive the point home (while the rest of the class shouts out just how they would like the soldier to pike the dead baby or smear the father in his child's blood). He has the requisite Shakespeare prof reverence for the material but also emphasizes production history and how each play has been reinterpreted to respond to the times in which it has been performed. Engaging, thought-provoking, entertaining, top-notch class. Bizarre that he isn't a gold nugget already. He really cares about your writing and though there are only 2 assignments - a theater review and a paper on Hamlet - he gives extremely detailed (often punishing) notes and won't let sloppy thinking or writing slide. Also one of the few English professors who isn't cripplingly socially awkward outside of class, so go to his office hours - he expects it, especially for the paper.

Nov 2010

Shapiro is one of those polarizing professors who you either love or strongly dislike, but I must say that most people I know really love him. Yes, he gives a scary speech the first day of class about how he'll throw your cell phone out the window if he hears it ring or how he won't let you into the class if you're late, but his bark is much bigger than his bite. He's an excellent teacher—enthusiastic, insightful, and honestly even inspirational, despite the fact that he's taught the class about a billion times. I thought he really made the plays and sonnets we read come alive... clearly Shakespeare isn't exactly fresh material but he approaches it as if both he and his students are reading it for the first time. It IS a pain in the ass that the class is at 9am, totally brutal (and chances are you'll be on the 7th floor of Hamilton because, as he told my class, he specifically requests that room so that students will have to walk all the way up there and it "gets your blood pumping"), but I really think it's worth it. I also really suggest that you go to his office hours, especially to talk about your final paper, because then you get a chance to see his softer side—he transforms from the intimidating famous Shakespeare expert to a chill guy who wants to help you get a good grade in his class (which, by the way, is totally doable if you do most of the reading). Believe the hype and take this class!

Aug 2009

Previous reviews have focused on his charisma, intelligence, dynamism, and prowess, to which I can only say: all of it is true; he’s pretty fucking great. One thing that caught me off-guard – this thing that other reviewers have neglected to mention – is that he’s one of those English professors that makes you go to class. By testing you on the material presented within. You have to go to class, every time. (He shares this stylistic trait with his sister, Jill, of ‘The Human Species’ fame.) This would be more of a treat if it wasn’t at nine in the morning. Sure, Shakespeare’s language is abstruse and the two assignments (review and paper) ain’t no ride on no pink duck, but for the diurnal college student the toughest challenge will be getting to class on time and staying not just awake, but active and attentive. This is what a previous reviewer meant when he said ‘The midterm and final are punitive.’ Once you show up, everything will fall into place. He meets with everyone for the paper, true, but then you get to see that his bilious exterior is just that, and that he’s a kind and conscientious man who will go to the felt for his students if need be.

Jan 2006

I took Shakespeare I with Prof. Shapiro, and there is no teacher (that I have had, at least) who is even comparable to his winning combination of brilliance and entertainment. If you go in liking Shakespeare, you will come out LOVING it, if you go in hating Shakespeare, you will probably also come out loving it... or at the very least appreciating it and liking it. I've never had a professor more enthusiastic about his/her subject. Granted, he is also incredibly intimidating in class, and when you hand in your papers, he'll pick them apart relentlessly, but I don't think I have learned as much or grown as a student more than in his class.

Dec 2004

I had heard that Shapiro was the better of our Shakespeare professors and as it turned out, that was not saying much. Shapiro is clearly a very intelligent man, but I felt that he spent the majority of this course intimidating his students - telling us how incapable we were of making intelligent comments and then warning us of how unbearably difficult the exams and the paper were going to be. His aim, of course, was to make us work hard, but for goodness sakes, we were a class of 80 Columbia College seniors - surely we were above this sort of infantile 'tough love' approach. The sad thing is that it would have been a great class if he hadn't been so condescending through the whole thing. Ultimately, his theatrical intimidations and his patronizing talk got in the way of his teaching, which is a shame, because it would have been a really good class without all the air.

Dec 2004

On the first day of his Titus Andronicus lecture, Shapiro cradled a bookbag (which was supposed to be Aaron's baby) in his arms, paused, and then held it in the air above his head. Which do you like better, he asked? There are many interpretations of Shakespeare's plays and Shapiro shows us that there are no easy answers. He is one of the most passionate professors I have encountered--his stories about being inspired by London theater make this clear (if you haven't already been convinced by the enthusiasm he shows during class.) Yes, he asks questions and calls on students at random, which is intimidating in a 70 person lecture, but he is just trying to prove to us that we can't just sit and mindlessly absorb Shakespeare--it takes work. And he is one of the few professors I've encountered who actually seems to want to teach and is willing to work himself. He wouldn't even give us contact info for the TAs because he said there's no reason to meet with them when we can meet with him. He personally grades all of the Hamlet papers with comments throughout (on both material and writing style), and an additional page of comments at the end. He even stayed after the final to individually read everyone his comments (his handwriting is atrocious). For a well-renowned, full professor, this kind of attention is, unfortunately, pretty rare. The material is fairly introductory, but it doesn't matter. The paper is an unbelievably challenging assignment and you'll feel a real sense of accomplishment when you finish it. And Shapiro is, of course, so entertaining that you might just forget to drink your coffee. If you are a junior or senior English major, take this course.

Nov 2004

I agree with a previous reviewer that Shapiro's lectures are pretty lightweight, which is not a criticism because Shakespeare is thematically quite transparent to begin with. Typically, a Shapiro lecture confirms and nuances your own gut reaction to a play (indeed that's what he solicits in class), putting some of the themes that you have identified in historical and biographical context. His overarching argument is that Shakespeare's take on these themes is more ambivalent than subsequent commentators liked to think. This is a good thing to keep in mind, and after a few lectures you should get the hang of it and start looking at Shakespeare's language with vigilance. Having seen a Shakespeare play realized on stage, I understand how different (and better, in my opinion) that is than reading. So I don't think his acting is a waste of time. Overall, even though this class may not blow you away with brilliance, this is a good introduction to Shakespeare and more than sufficient for most casual reader's purposes. I enjoy Shapiro's dynamicism, but most heartening is his passion for the material and for teaching. He loves Shakespeare and theater, and he wants us to love it too. That as a full professor he teaches two undergraduate courses per semester shows his devotion to undergraduates. If he seems "abrasive" in class, that is his way of keeping us alert. If you talk to him during his office hours, you realize he is the kindest professor imaginable. I have a lot of respect of him as a person and as a teacher.

Jan 2004

This class is one of the only English classes at Columbia where you can practice your writing. Professor Shapiro expects you to put your heart and soul into each review that you write, and this takes a lot of effort. But it's worth it. You will learn how to read and write book reviews. The syllabus is unique and interesting. Shapiro is loads of fun and knows how to keep a class entertained- there is never a dull moment. He is a bit self-important and thinks his role as an academic is just as important as a doctor who saves millions of lives- but as long as you don't mind a bit of professorial arrogance, he is a very smart man with a lot to offer. He seems to care about his students and is willing to listen to them. This was one of my favorite classes at Columbia!

Dec 2003

I'm not sure what all the fuss about Prof. Shaprio is for; sure, his class is enjoyable, but his lectures tend to be pretty lightweight, as he seems more concerned with making grandiose statements about what he intends to do ("I'm using each lecture to show you a different way to read these plays..I want to strip away all the stuff that you've learned and really have you read this stuff, etc) than really doing it. His approach emphasizes discussion, and while this may minimize unnecessary note-taking and boring lectures, it isn't always particularly educational. Shapiro's Shakespeare certainly isn't a bad class, but its reputation may be more a result of his own ego and posturing than the actual substance of the course itself.

Dec 2003

One of the more enjoyable classes I've had at this school. Shapiro's not much on close reading, but he makes you appreciate the plays and understand them on a larger scale. He's also got a great sense of humor, and he keeps things moving. Even though it was at 9:00, I didn't fall asleep once, something that can't be said for my other classes.

Dec 2003

This course was easily the most entertaining English course I've ever taken at Columbia, and it's really all due to Prof. Shapiro. His flair for showmanship is remarkable, and he presents brilliantly. It's impossible to sleep through one of his classes, even though this semester's Shakespeare was scheduled for nine in the morning. This is a fantastic class for people who like to speak their minds, because you'll get the opportunity to say something in this class whether you want to or not. Heh. Beware, though -- Shapiro's a quick draw, verbally speaking. If you can't back up what you're trying to say, or if you're just trying for brownie points with impressive-sounding crap, it's not going to fly. Shapiro won't settle for less than your best effort, in class or in papers. But that's ok, because by the end of the class, that's exactly what you'll want to give him.

May 2003

Shapiro's popularity is, at least partly, well-deserved. He's enthusiastic, engaging, and smart; he really loves the plays he teaches. I enjoyed the plays we read and Shapiro usually presented them in an appealing way. On the other hand, Shapiro's lectures left something to be desired. While I was never in danger of falling asleep during the 9 am class, I never felt I like I was learning a whole lot either. Only rarely did we study the plays in depth - often the lectures focused almost entirely on our reactions to the plays and on their historical context. It's true, Shapiro often seemed a little bored with conventional teaching; but instead of seeming "abrasive" (as he did to a previous reviewer), to me he simply seemed focused on everything except analyzing the plays themselves. Often I just wished we could get down to the meat of the plays, the language and themes, instead of having to watch scene after scene being acted out by students in the class and, often, by Shapiro himself, who seemed to greatly prefer acting over teaching. The class time wasn't used effectively and when the class ended I felt I had learned the most about the plays from reading them on my own; I had a superficial understanding of how they worked, but the class didn't teach me anything very substantial or enduring.

May 2003

I came to this class expecting to be impressed - Shapiro gets consistently high word-of-mouth reviews - but frankly, after the first few weeks, I felt heretical stirrings of annoyance. No question that he's brilliant; no question that he is, more often than not, funny and engaging. However, he's also abrasive and discouraging; he seemed bored during the required discussion of our papers during office hours; and he spent more than one class period yelling at us for not appreciating the incomprehensible and frankly weird plays that we were required to read. I can see his appeal, but I just didn't feel it. In terms of the course content, it's a lot of strange Early Modern stuff - basically, every play we read was kind of like another Shakespeare play but too weird to have survived. The workload is manageable and the grading more lenient than I expected. Expect to hear a lot of historicizing of the plays and not to talk very much about the language. Everything we read "had its finger on the pulse of the times" or "split along the fault lines of _____." If you already love Shapiro, you'll probably love this course - if only for his sock-puppet acting. However, if you prefer your professors to be a little less abrasive and a little more engaged with their students, look for another class.

Jan 2000

Great talker and discussion leader, always seems to have a clear vision of what he wants you to learn even when he doesn't. Has a way of making all of those crusty old issues seem very urgent, giving you scenarios to suck you into the book. Shapiro is a passinate teacher. People who take Lit Hum with him run the risk of getting inspired and becoming English majors.

Jan 2000

Shapiro is a gifted, engaging lecturer and, as the self-styled Clint Eastwood of Shakspeare studies, his toughguy-isms only add to the show. Dusty old books never seemed so relevant. His knowledge of little details is amazing and has the obsessive thoroughness of a stalker or serial killer storing every possible fact about his victims for later use. Presents you with clever scenarios and modern day equivalents that suck you right into the books. Expect to be impressed. Expect to work hard. Expect to fight for a seat.