Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Sharon O'Dair
Sharon O’Dair

In Hunting Season, Beau Taplin’s collection of poetry and prose, Taplin asserts that “Sunsets are proof that endings can often be beautiful too.”  Beautiful endings are a fitting goodbye to one of our beloved professors, Sharon O’Dair, who retired after the spring semester of 2016.

O’Dair was a Hudson Strode Professor of English and the Director of the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies for The University of Alabama.  She organized both of the 2016 Shakespeare Symposia to honor the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death—”Why Isn’t Shakespeare Dead?” and “The Poet’s Shakespeare.”  Although they were a lot of work, the gatherings and events were extremely satisfying for O’Dair to organize.

Much of contemporary Shakespearean research explores how Shakespeare can shape our lives.  O’Dair spoke about how his comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, relates to our lived experiences.

“As with any piece of compelling literature, Dream has more than one theme.  Depending on the audience— undergraduates, graduate students, colleagues— and my own current concerns, I might emphasize, say, what the play asks about the relationship between humans and animals, or humans and an animate world, the world of Oberon, Titania, and Puck. But here, I’d like to ask you to consider relationships among the play’s humans, specifically the aristocrats and the hard-handed men who put on a play for the entertainment of the former.  These ‘rude mechanicals’ are actually skilled craftsmen or artisans— carpenters, a tailor, a bellows-mender, and so on. Yet they are mocked because of their lack of education and sophistication.  When teaching Dream, one of my favorite bits is to ask students why they are at the University; almost universally, they say ‘to have a better life’ or ‘to make money.’  I ask them what they want to do upon graduation and the answers are many, but often students list occupations like ‘teacher’ or ‘minister’ or ‘lawyer’ or ‘social worker.’  I then ask them, ‘who makes more money— a teacher or an electrician?  A social worker or a plumber?’  What this reveals is that students are not necessarily interested in ‘more money’ but that they do think ‘a better life’ means not working with one’s hands, not being a hard-handed man or woman. This misunderstanding reveals that our society does not value labor, especially labor that makes one dirty or sweaty.  Such awareness is useful, I think, as students mature into citizens who vote and make judgments about policy, but also as they think about what they want to do with their lives. There’s nothing wrong with being an educated or sophisticated carpenter!”

When working with her students, O’Dair focused on more than just teaching them about Shakespeare.  She imparts questions she hopes they will continue to explore after the semester ends.

As she moves into the next part of her career, which will involve more writing, mentoring, and traveling, O’Dair thinks carefully about her advice to those who remain:

“One of my essays is titled ‘Slow Shakespeare’; it’s an eco-critique of the way we do our intellectual work, flying here and there and everywhere, relying increasingly on electricity intensive media, publishing more and more and more bits of our thinking, doing more and more and more outreach and mentoring. Busy, busy, busy; we’re all always already busy.  Instead, I think, we need to slow down, to resist speeding-up, and to take the time to hone our thinking and polish our writing.  Enjoy life and insist on the value of time for intellectual work. This, it seems to me, is healthy for people and the planet,” O’Dair said.

Because all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, we at The University of Alabama thank you, Professor O’Dair, for being one of our players and crafting your own role with such distinguished grace and verve.  Now, at the time of your exit, we bid you adieu.