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Professor's expertise in Shakespeare leads to top faculty honor

Author, scholar, director, poet Jonathan Bate is now an ASU Regents Professor


Portrait of ASU Regents Professor Jonathan Bate

Newly named Regents Professor Jonathan Bate — scholar of Shakespeare, author, professor, actor, director, playwright, critic, poet, radio presenter and one of the creators of the relatively new discipline of ecocriticism — is affiliated with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures. Photo by Armand Saavedra/ASU

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February 22, 2024

 Jonathan Bate has played many parts — scholar of Shakespeare, author, professor, actor, director, playwright, critic, poet, radio presenter and one of the creators of the relatively new discipline of ecocriticism.

He was knighted in 2015 for his scholarship of Shakespeare, earning him the title Sir Jonathan Bate.

In 2019, Bate left the University of Oxford to come to Arizona State University as a Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities in Global Futures, drawn by the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary education. At ASU, he’s also affiliated with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures.

“ASU is so innovative in crossing disciplinary boundaries and in giving you the chance to do new things, to experiment,” said Bate, who admires the broad education of American higher education.

“The advantage is that for educating citizenship, that breadth is essential. Humanities people need to know a bit about climate science and scientists need to know a bit about history,” he said.

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Bate is so excellent in his field that he has been named one of four ASU Regents Professors for 2024 — the highest faculty honor, which is achieved by only 3% of faculty members.

Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at ASU, said this about Bate:

“Arizona does not knight scholars for their achievements in literature, but it does bestow the title of Regents Professor upon the best of the best. Sir Jonathan Bate — knighted in the U.K. for his service to literary criticism — is certainly that. He is a world-renowned writer, scholar and thinker — as well as a good-hearted person who cares deeply about the environment.

“The humanities disciplines must advance hand-in-hand with scientific discovery to solve the pressing problems that societies face, especially around social justice, technology and climate change.”

Bate recently led the steering committee that launched the first bachelor’s degree program in culture, technology and environment, which prepares students to engage with climate research, artificial intelligence and other challenges in science and technology with a humanistic lens, Cohen said.

“I'm incredibly grateful to have him as part of our team of interdisciplinary experts in the humanities, and he is well deserving of his latest designation as Regents Professor,” he said.

Video by Academic Enterprise Communications

A lifelong passion

Bate fell in love with Shakespeare when his high school drama class did “Macbeth.”

“There is nothing like learning the words and saying the words aloud to really get inside the play and inside the characters,” he said.

“So that gave me my passion for Shakespeare.”

Bate’s family lived near London and its many theaters. He saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production with Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judy Dench as Lady Macbeth.

“It just absolutely blew me away,” he said.

“And I thought, this is the kind of thing I want to be spending my life studying.”

As a student at the University of Cambridge, Bate remained passionate about acting and directing, and considered going into the profession.

“I was in a fortunate generation. I would act with people like Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson. That crowd, that generation, were just so clearly talented that they were going to kind of leave me in the dust,” he said.

“It was just clear to me that I was fine at studying the plays, explaining, teaching, writing about the plays. But in the end, I didn't have that kind of theatrical genius.”

Bate did eventually see his name in the West End, London’s theater mecca, when the actor Simon Callow asked him to write a one-man play. “Being Shakespeare” was performed in London, New York and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010.

“So in the end, the wheel came full circle,” he said.

Bate believes that experiencing Shakespeare’s words performed is the best way to learn about him, and that includes good movie versions.

“I think for high school kids, the Baz Luhrmann ‘Romeo and Juliet’ film stands up really well. I mean, you have to explain that no, the play's not actually set in contemporary LA, and the moment when Mercutio does the speech about what you see in your dreams, he pops an Ecstasy tab and you have to say, ‘Oh, this is director's license.’

“But the basics of the plot, the ideas and much of the language of the play is there and for so many of the plays, a great movie version is a way to start,” he said, also recommending Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” movie.

“Then you can start reading it in more detail and getting into the analysis, but I’ve got to start with performance.”

Bate is always excited to share his passion and was especially gratified to serve as a consultant curator for the “Shakespeare: Staging the World” exhibit at the British Museum during the London Olympics in 2012.

He worked with curators to find artifacts related to Shakespeare and his era. For example, “The Tempest” is set in the Caribbean with a description of a spirit imprisoned in a tree.

“And the curator of the Indigenous Art of the Americas (collection) says, ‘Oh yes, I've got a 16th century wood engraving from Jamaica of a spirit in a tree.’

“And we managed to borrow the copy of ‘Shakespeare's Complete Works’ that Nelson Mandela and the other inmates on Robben Island used to hand round secretly and mark their favorite passages.”

Bate has written 20 books, including several about Shakespeare. He’s also written and presented documentaries for BBC Radio. And he serves as a consultant and chairman of the board of ReLit, a nonprofit founded by his wife, the writer Paula Byrne. ReLit advocates for the use of slow reading, especially of poetry, as a way to deal with stress and anxiety.

In 2006, Bate was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his Shakespeare work by Queen Elizabeth, who asked, “Is that Shakespeare on the page or on the stage?” After he explained, she said, “Oh, a bit of both.”

In 2015, after Prince William touched the sword on Bate’s shoulder, making Bate the youngest person ever to be knighted for services to literary scholarship, they chatted a bit.

“I said, ‘You may be interested to know, sir, that you are mentioned in my next book.’ And he looked really shocked. And I explained that I was at that time working on my biography of the British poet laureate Ted Hughes.

“Prince Charles, as he then was, was very close to Ted Hughes. And Hughes used to go round to Highgrove and read bedtime stories to William and Harry.

“William said, ‘Oh, I loved Ted and remember him reading the story.’ That was a very nice moment.”

Creating ecocriticism

Beyond Shakespeare, Bate was one of the first contributors to the emerging discipline of ecocriticism, the study of literature that considers the relationship between people and the environment.

Bate loves to hike in the Lake District in the north of England, which piqued his interest in the poetry of William Wordsworth, part of the Romantic movement of the early 19th century, which embraced the idea of returning to nature to live more healthfully in the age of industrialization.

“There was a particular moment when I was there in 1989, after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, and I discovered that sheep farmers were having to slaughter their sheep in the English Lake District because of radioactivity from Chernobyl.

“And that sense that ultimately we are all dependent on the environment, that every part of the natural world is affected by human activities, got me thinking, ‘What would Wordsworth have thought about this?’"

Bate realized that Wordsworth wrote about air pollution and the benefits of living in harmony with nature. He wrote “Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition” in 1991.

“And as often happens with intellectual developments, roundabout that same time, the early 1990s, there were others, particularly here in the American West, thinking about the literature of the wilderness. And this sort of movement called ecocriticism emerged as a new development. And it's absolutely flourished.

“There’s a recognition that to address all the multiple environmental crises of our time, we have to think holistically. And that means that the arts, culture, poetry, visual arts, creativity has to be a part of our thinking.”

Opening students’ eyes

It was that spanning of multiple disciplines that brought Bate to ASU.

From 2011 to 2019, he was the provost of Worcester College at the University of Oxford, a demanding administrative role that required a great deal of fundraising, which he enjoyed but it took away from teaching and writing.

He had given a lecture at ASU a few years earlier, connecting with professors here, and when his term was over, ASU seemed like a good fit.

Bate teaches a course called Society and Sustainability.

“For students who are mostly doing social science, and quantitative too, to throw at them Henry David Thoreau's ‘Walden’ or the pope’s encyclical about the environment or an ecofeminist writing about women in the environment, it really opens their eyes.”

Bate loves the diversity of ASU’s students, such as those who are first in their family to go to college and those in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan through ASU Online.

“They’re typically older people coming back to university, developing a passion, whether it's literature or sustainability, and they’re bringing a lot of real-world experience.

“I find that very rewarding.”

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