Great Topics Seminars


2017 Great Topics Seminar - Shakespeare, Cervantes, and The Birth of Modern Literature

Spring 2017 - Shakespeare, Cervantes, and The Birth of Modern Literature


April 23, 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the deaths of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Miguel de Cervantes (c.1547-1616).* Many literary scholars argue that from these two writers descends literature as we now know it.

William ShakespeareThe basics of Shakespeare’s life story are known to almost everyone. Armed with a grammar school education in “small Latin and less Greek,” the country boy from Stratford leaves wife and family in order to make a career on the London stage. Soon thereafter, the young actor has begun to write plays. With the earnings, he will buy his father a coat of arms and himself a share in the Globe Theatre. With the proceeds from his various theatrical ventures, he earns enough money to retire at age 50.

In the English-speaking world, we know Cervantes less well. Born and educated in the Spanish university town of Alcalá de Henares, his father is a barber-surgeon and his mother the daughter of a noble family fallen on hard times. (If you are at all familiar with the story of Don Quixote, or the musical, Man of La Mancha, this will sound familiar!) Forced to flee his homeland for uncertain reasons, he joins the Spanish Marines, famously receiving wounds in the 1573 Battle of Lepanto that will cost him the use of a hand. On his journey homeward, he is captured by Ottoman pirates. Ransomed from slavery after five years, Cervantes finally returns to Spain. Like Shakespeare, he becomes a playwright. Nearing age 50, he finds his true literary calling in the novel. In 1605, The Adventures of Don Quixote is published, and within a year Cervantes and his novel are world famous.

While setting Shakespeare and Cervantes in their fascinating cultural contexts, the Spring 2017 Great Topics course will focus on key works by the two seminal artists. As we read such enduring treasures as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and The Adventures of Don Quixote, all of which were written within five years of each other, we will explore relationships between these timeless classics, as well as the literary inheritance Shakespeare and Cervantes have bequeathed to us.

* There is a long tradition that places the deaths of Cervantes and Shakespeare on the same date, April 23. While there is a sense in which this could have been true, Cervantes died according to the modern, Gregorian calendar, which England did not adopt until 1750. Therefore, if Shakespeare died on April 23 as reckoned by the Julian (Old Style) calendar, Cervantes would have predeceased him by 10 days. Still, the “same date” possibility makes for a terrific legend.


Course Objectives

  • To deepen our appreciation of Shakespeare and Cervantes by experiencing their works
  • To situate these foundational writers in relation to the literary and intellectual traditions they share
  • To explore the national cultures that produced artists as distinctive as Shakespeare and Cervantes
  • To examine the shifting currents of the Anglo-Spanish relationship during the age in which the two writers lived and wrote
  • To survey the contributions of Shakespeare and Cervantes to an emerging global literary culture
  • To consider the continuing influence and relevance of their works in our own time



Eric J. GriffinEric J. Griffin is the Janice B. Trimble Professor and Chair of the English Department at Millsaps College. Known to many students and faculty colleagues as simply “Griff,” his lifelong interest in Anglo-Spanish relations led to a dual emphasis on English and Spanish literature at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he received his B.A., further study in a Los Angeles City College Mexico program, courses in Spanish language and culture at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and finally, to graduate school in Renaissance Studies at the University of Iowa. There, his prize-winning Ph.D. dissertation, “The Temper of Spain: The Forging of Anti-Hispanic Sentiment in Early Modern England, 1492-1604,” focused on Anglo-Spanish literary and cultural relationships during the Tudor era. The author of English Renaissance Drama and the Specter of Spain: Ethnopoetics and Empire (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), as well as numerous articles in journals and edited volumes, he is currently at work on England’s Jacobean Dramatists and the Specter of Spain, a study focusing on Anglo-Spanish literary and cultural relations during the reign of King James I, c. 1604-1625. With additional research interests in the Colonial Americas in comparative relationship, Griffin directs the Millsaps College Latin American Studies Program and contributes regularly to the interdisciplinary Living in Yucatán curriculum, in association with which he has twice directed the Millsaps Yucatán Semester Program.


Who Should Attend

  • Anyone who loves literature and her sister arts: Shakespeare and Cervantes have influenced them all!
  • Lifelong learners who value serious intellectual stimulation
  • Community volunteers and activists
  • Professionals in public and private schools and foundations


What Can You Expect?

The Millsaps Great Topics Seminars: Studies in the Humanities and Sciences are designed for serious lifelong learners as well as corporate and professional leaders and community volunteers/activists in the Jackson metropolitan area. These seminars provide opportunities for serious engagement with intellectual issues affecting society and the individual. More than 330 leaders have taken our seminars since they were established in 1988.

Participants are selected for their interest and/or expertise in a particular topic as well as accomplishments or recognized leadership potential and the age, gender, and the ethnic diversity they provide the group. They are encouraged through collaborative learning techniques to develop a greater capacity for analysis and synthesis of ideas, critical thinking, oral and written communication, and appreciation for the values inherent in our institutions and practices, including historical and literature components. The Great Topics Seminars require extensive reading assignments and informal reflective writing of all participants.



Millsaps College’s Great Topics Seminar for the spring Semester, 2017, will begin January 13-14 with a retreat on campus. Thereafter, weekly meetings will be held on Thursdays in the Millsaps Room of the Millsaps-Wilson Library on the Millsaps campus. The seminar will meet January 19 through April 27 except for Thursday, March 15, which is Spring Break week. Each session will begin at 10am and conclude at 1pm Coffee and snacks will be available during each class.



Leadership Seminars in the Humanities were begun in 1988 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their continuation is made possible in part by the generous support of Millsaps College and former seminar participants. To better reflect the current philosophy of these seminars, the name has been changed to Millsaps Great Topics Seminars: Studies in the Humanities and Sciences.

The fee for participating in this seminar is $825. Due to this special pricing of the Great Topics Seminars, no discounts can be made in the tuition. This course is a noncredit offering of the College and carries no academic credit; however there are rigorous requirements of reading and informal reflection writing during the semester.

For further information, contact Dr. Nola Gibson at 601.974.1130 or

The application deadline is December 1. Enrollment in the Seminar is limited.



Established in 1988 and made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Leadership Seminars in the Humanities bring together Millsaps professors in the humanities with corporate, volunteer and professional leaders in the community. To better reflect the current philosophy of these seminars, the name has been changed to Millsaps Great Topics Seminars: Studies in the Humanities and Sciences. These seminars offer an opportunity for serious engagement with intellectual issues affecting society and the individual. More than 330 leaders have taken our seminars since they were established.