Claire Sommers

Claire Sommers

Lecturer, Department of English
Lecturer in Drama, Performing Arts Department
PhD, The Graduate Center, CUNY
MA, New York University
BA, New York University

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Claire Sommers’ research and teaching interests frame the early modern period as the intersection between the classics and contemporary critical theory.

Claire Sommers’ research reframes the early modern reception of the classics in order to yield new insights into contemporary theoretical discourses. Her first book project Chimeras, Centaurs, and Satyrs: Creating Hybrid Texts in Antiquity and Early Modern England historicize the link between hybrid creatures and what she classifies as “hybrid texts,” works that exhibit their composite nature in three registers: they combine multiple genres; they evoke hybrid creatures; and they emphasize the indeterminacy of linguistic meaning. Aligning hybridity with the ancient Greek word hybris, often translated as violence or corruption, her study returns to an alternate understanding of the concept: surpassing what is humanly possible. Drawing on the depiction of physical hybrids in scientific texts and travel narratives, her book contends that the hybrid’s position in the liminal space between imagination and reality made it an ideal symbol of hermeneutic innovation. She argues that it is through the anatomization of composite creatures in hybrid texts that authors represent the generic and linguistic mixture that allows their works to articulate what previous modes of artistic expression could not adequately express. Establishing the early modern conception of hybridity as a historical analogue to the theoretical discourses of Foucault, Bhabha, and Haraway, Dr. Sommers’ work intervenes in and recasts contemporary discourse on race, gender, and disability. Chimeras, Centaurs, and Satyrs thus demonstrates that the hybrid functions as a vehicle for metatextual examination and a mode of creative transcendence.

Dr. Sommers’ work has been published in Arion and Renaissance Drama. Her most recent article “The Virtue of Virginity: Remaking Cleopatra in Elizabeth’s Image in The False One” represents her second book project Drama Queens: Creating Cleopatra and Engaging Elizabeth, which contends that Cleopatra functioned as a figure by which early modern drama examined Elizabeth’s life and legacy. Tracing the evolution of Cleopatra’s depiction, including changes made to her marital, parental, and racial statuses, this project not only produces new understandings of race, gender, and globalization as it existed in the early modern period, but also engages with and reframes the more recent theories of Spivak, Butler, Rich, Gubar, and Gilbert.

Dr. Sommers’ classes frame early modern writers as readers and revisers of ancient sources. In the same way that the early modern period interpreted and adapted classical texts in order to yield new insights into their own era, Dr. Sommers encourages her students to read Renaissance literature in order to better understand their own lived experiences and the origins of contemporary theoretical discourses. Courses she has taught at WashU include: “Drama Queens: Cleopatra in Elizabethan England;” “The Marvelous and the Monstrous in Early Modern Literature;” “Shakespeare: The Godly and the Grotesque;” “Shakespeare in Performance;” “Magic and Mayhem, Desire and Disguise: A Novel Beginning;” and “Early Texts and Contexts.” Dr. Sommers is also the Exhibits and Professionalization Coordinator for the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), where she has created and currently oversees several professional development initiatives, including the Job Clinic, the Publishing Mentorship Program, the Book Exhibit, and the Undergraduate Research Forum. She is also the Founding Director of the organization’s Classics area. Before arriving at WashU, Dr. Sommers created and served as Deputy Director of the Critical Theory Certificate at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She organized the program’s annual conference and lecture series, curating talks by Stephen Greenblatt, Homi Bhabha, Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Zizek, Jonathan Culler, Anne Carson, Kaja Silverman, and Harold Bloom. She also developed and oversaw “Mapping Time,” a Digital Humanities collaboration among CUNY, the branches of New York Public Library, and several high schools that uses New York City history to teach archival and digital research techniques.

Selected Courses

E Lit 3522 Topics in Literature: Drama Queens: Cleopatra in Elizabethan England

Cleopatra, queen of the Nile, has become famous for her romantic liaisons, political maneuvering, and her death by snake bite. Yet Cleopatra was also a formidable military strategist, a powerful leader who studied medicine and spoke nearly a dozen languages. Most importantly, Cleopatra was the prototype for depicting strong women on the throne. This course will explore how Early Modern writers re-imagined Cleopatra in the Renaissance, a time which saw another strong queen, Elizabeth I, rise to power. We will pay special attention to how writers used Cleopatra to engage with Early Modern issues of globalization, gender, history, and politics. Finally, we will think about how Shakespeare and his contemporaries contrasted the exotic and sometimes scandalous Cleopatra with the virginal Queen Elizabeth. 3 short response papers; midterm and final papers; and a presentation introducing one of the assigned readings. First-year and/or students with no prior knowledge of this topic are encouraged to enroll.

    L14 395C Shakespeare: The Godly and the Grotesque

    While Shakespeare is celebrated for his realistic depictions of characters, events, and emotions, his work is filled with other-worldly elements, including sorcery, oracles, myths, and grotesque creatures. This course will explore Shakespeare's use of the fantastic, the unnatural, and the monstrous. Reading a wide selection of comedy, tragedy, and history, we will consider Shakespeare's often contradictory attitude to the supernatural: on one hand, a source of evil, villainy, and perversion, and, on the other, a symbol of the divine and a means of surpassing the humanly possible. We will look at how Shakespeare used monstrous imagery to reflect upon his own work and the nature of theatre itself. Finally, we will examine how Shakespeare's allusions to the unnatural allowed him to critique and engage with historical sources as well as contemporary issues such as gender, politics, and globalization. Readings may include "Antony and Cleopatra," "Othello," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Tempest," "Coriolanus," "Troilus and Cressida," "The Winter's Tale," and "Richard III." Three short response papers; midterm and final papers; and a presentation introducing one of the assigned readings. First-year and/or students with no prior knowledge of this topic are encouraged to enroll.

      L14 372 The Renaissance: Magic and Mayhem, Desire and Disguise: A Novel Beginning

      Novels are everywhere, from "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "Harry Potter" to "Pride and Prejudice." But the novel needed to be invented, and, if the earliest examples date from antiquity, the genre flourished during the Renaissance, where it offers a blend of interests such as fantasy, humor, mystery, horror, and romance. We will explore how the Early Modern novel, with its stories of love, sorcery, disguises, monsters, abduction, and adventure, was shaped by the printing press, new technology that made literature accessible to the masses and thus encouraged the creation of popular commercial fiction. We will also see how these works grapple with issues of globalization, gender, and education. We will look at how the Early Modern novel descends from ancient prose and other genres such as poetry, drama, and epic. Finally, we will consider how the popular reception of the Early Modern novel solidified print culture and has continued to influence a diverse array of popular literature, film, and television, including fairy tales, science fiction, and romantic comedy. Readings may include works by Plato, Longus, Heliodorus, and Apuleius from antiquity; works by Lyly, Nashe, Lodge, Greene, Sidney, More, Deloney, and Shakespeare from the Renaissance; and modern theories of the novel by Bakhtin, Lukacs, and Moretti. 3 short response papers; midterm and final papers; and a presentation introducing one of the assigned readings. First-year and/or students with no prior knowledge of this topic are encouraged to enroll.

        L14 372 The Marvelous and the Monstrous in Early Modern Literature

        Today, the word "monster" refers to a creature that is frightening and harmful but ultimately imaginary. However, in the early modern period, monsters appeared in a wide array of fictional and nonfictional genres and could alternately symbolize good and evil; divinity and animal; punishment and miracle; corruption and innovation; and perversion and transcendence. This course will investigate the often contradictory portrayals of monsters and marvels in early modern literature. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, we will read prose fiction, drama, and poetry alongside contemporaneous medical treatises, philosophical discourses, religious texts, and news pamphlets in order to better understand early modern attitudes toward monsters. We will ground our analysis in the earliest portrayals of monsters in Greco-Roman literature, considering how these creatures were adapted to reflect early modern sensibilities. We will also examine the use of monsters to represent the relationship between art and nature in order to reflect upon the creative process itself. Finally, we will probe the deployment of monsters as a means of engaging with early modern issues of gender, politics, disability, and globalization. Readings may include works by Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, Cicero, Pliny, Paré, Bacon, Marlowe, Nashe, Sidney, Jonson, Greene, Heywood, Spenser, and Shakespeare. 3 short responses; midterm and final papers; and presentation of one of the assigned readings. First-year and/or students with no prior knowledge of this topic are encouraged to enroll.

          L14 3952 Shakespeare in Performance (co-taught with Dr. Julia Walker)

          This course is an introduction to Shakespeare's plays and poems through the interpretive framework of performance. A thespian himself, Shakespeare drew on his stage experience when writing his plays, collaborating with a theater company and shaping his characters to reflect the talents of its actors. Reading the plays as literature, we will study the evolution of how they have been produced on stage from their early modern premieres to the present day, comparing and contrasting different strategies for generating meaning in performance with reference to various film adaptations. By reciting a sonnet of their choosing and rehearsing a scene from one of the plays, students will gain new insight into performance as an interpretive act and a deeper understanding of the production and reception histories of Shakespeare's plays. Most importantly, we will consider why Shakespeare's works have continued not only to resonate, but also to entertain, for over 400 years. Assignments include: two papers; an in-class performance of a sonnet; and a group presentation of a scene from one of Shakespeare's playsaccompanied by a brief reflection statement. First-year and/or students with no prior knowledge of this topic are encouraged to enroll. Satisfies the Early Modern requirement.

            Selected Publications

            "The Virtue of Virginity: Remaking Cleopatra in Elizabeth's Image in The False One." Renaissance Drama, vol. 49, no. 1, Spring 2021, pp. 101-22.

            "School of Shadows: The Return to Plato's Cave." Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, vol. 25, no. 3, Winter 2018, pp. 131-46.