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"Canons Before Canons:
College Entrance Requirements and the Making of a National-Educational Shakespeare"

Denise Albanese

Professor of English

George Mason University


In connection with my manuscript, Extramural Shakespeare, I’ve become interested in the distillation of the Shakespearean canon for American secondary-school students down to three or four plays, which then seem to stay sedimented in the curriculum more or less until the present. As Arthur Applebee’s work has shown, the emergence of the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) positioned it as a national arbiter of the curriculum at the turn of the twentieth century; the texts such an institution proposed would have great effects on the preparation of college applicants, and on the curricula of burgeoning regional high-school systems.


But initial research suggests that before the CEEB, when universities set their own texts for entrance examinations, there was room for variation. In New York City, for instance, the Shakespeare plays students studied in preparation for entering the College of the City of New York were not always the same as the plays those applying for admission to Columbia (and Barnard) were asked to read; nor did the students always read the same plays once admitted. While my paper will speculate on the reasons for this local variation, the fact that such variation exists also argues for its possibility among institutions more geographically dispersed. Did an elite Southern institution, such as the University of Virginia, or one in the West, such as Stanford, accord with the emphasis Columbia placed on (e.g.) Macbeth? Given the widely-discussed relationship between Shakespeare and elites that emerges in the twentieth century, my paper aims to provide further data about the selective deployment of Shakespeare in determining access to tertiary educational institutions–and hence in shaping those elites.


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