Counseling and William Shakespeare: An Interdisciplinary Blog Entry in Five Acts

This blog post was written by Counseling@Northwestern online faculty member Dr. Russell Fulmer.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. At first glance, the counseling field and works of William Shakespeare may seem to have little in common, but looks can be deceiving. Beneath the cover, both are defined by an interest in the human condition: What makes us tick? What drives us? What confounds us? Let’s explore the connection in a little more depth.

Act I

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of perhaps the greatest writer in the history of the English language. Known as the Bard of Avon, or simply the Bard, he is the iconic William Shakespeare—poet, playwright, and master wordsmith. Indeed, Shakespeare enriched the English language with many memorable turns of phrase. The tragic and timeless Hamlet alone introduced us to thine own self being true, and to be or not to be, being the question at hand; and seeing a method in the madness. Through his singular way with words, Shakespeare is everywhere, and his plays are performed worldwide. (The Japanese interpretations of Hamlet are said to be especially interesting).

Act II

What is it about the words of an Elizabethan era playwright that resonates with audiences today? There must be universal truths in those sonnets and plays that transcend cultural barriers. Lessons about human psychology abound in the pages of MacbethThe Winter’s Tale, and Twelfth Night. For if knowledge is priceless, the works of Shakespeare are worth their weight in gold. Actually, they are worth more than that. A First Folio of Shakespeare can reach north of $7 million at auction. This is for a First Folio published in 1623, not your local library edition. Sorry.


And Shakespeare relates to counseling … how, pray tell? Counselors are modern-day wordsmiths! Granted, they seldom craft velvety smooth prose a la Shakespeare, but they do use words for the noble purpose of helping people. It stands to reason that there is a lot to learn about language and communication, persuasion, frailty and fraud, courage and corruption, and instinct and temperament, through the words of one of the best communicators of all time.

Act IV

Therefore, counselor education programs should offer courses titled “Shakespeare for Counselors” or “Romeo and Juliet and Suicide Prevention.” On second thought, that may be asking too much. Nonetheless, the enduring works of Shakespeare remain rich sources of information about the psyche. After all, many of Shakespeare’s characters act in ways strikingly similar to modern life, indicating that behavioral tendencies cross the boundaries of time. Maybe we should learn what these tendencies are. Shakespeare is not for everyone, yet many fear the Bard unnecessarily. His plays were written in early modern English,* but with a little effort—and assistance from modern translators like the No Fear Shakespeare Company, if you wish—you can be enjoying Shakespeare in less time than it took Henry IV to ascend to the throne.

Act V

Where to begin the Shakespearean journey, you ask? Here are a few tips for your first foray into these timeless classics. Shakespeare’s plays are divided into comedies (Much Ado About NothingA Midsummer Night’s Dream), histories (Julius Caesar), and tragedies. While the comedies are popular, the centuries-old humor may be hard to appreciate. Most people laugh at these plays because they think they are supposed to laugh, not because they genuinely find the content funny. Some plays are apparently historical but are categorized as tragedies. My recommendation is to start with the tragedies, many of which are nothing short of true masterpieces. A favorite among Shakespeare aficionados is King Lear, and I cannot recommend it enough. Themes of betrayal, trickery, authority, delusions, denial, and much, much more permeate the pages of this tragic tale. Next, delve into that goldmine of psychology Othello, where the tour de force emotion known as jealousy is ignited by deceit against a backdrop of racial tension in a play that introduces readers to perhaps the most notorious Shakespearean villain of all, the sinister Iago. Othello has as much, if not more, relevance today as when it was written.

This concludes our blog/play for today. Hopefully it was much ado about something, worth your time, and you are now motivated to explore the works of Shakespeare. Read them first. Take your time, make sure you understand the language, and then go see the plays.

With that, and a courtesy bow to you, my audience, I pay homage to the great writer and bid you adieu. Mr. Shakespeare, may thou spirit never fade, for you teach us still, all of us, including counselors. 

*For a comparison, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was written in Middle English (and can be tough to decipher) while the epic poem Beowulf was penned in Old English (and can be impossible to understand in its original form). In comparison, the Shakespearean language barrier appears easy to cross.