Varsha Panjwani, Ph.D., an English professor at Fordham’s London campus, teaches Shakespeare with a 21st-century twist. Her course, Shakespeare, shows students how to use the bard’s famous plays to relate to their lives regardless of their ethnicity, culture, or sexual orientation.

Panjwani was born in India and raised in Dubai and Kuwait. At 18 years old, she moved to the United Kingdom, where she became a British citizen. She is now a Shakespeare expert who has contributed her research to journals and film festivals and has been invited to deliver talks at prestigious institutions, including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the University of Oxford. She is also host and creator of the podcast Women and Shakespeare and author of the book Podcasts and Feminist Shakespeare Pedagogy (Cambridge University Press, 2022), both of which include work from Fordham students. She is currently working on a new introduction for the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. 

For the past eight years, Panjwani has served as an adjunct faculty professor at Fordham London. In addition to teaching a Shakespeare course there, Panjwani teaches at Boston University and New York University. 

In a Q&A with Fordham News, Panjwani explained why Shakespeare’s work is important to the average person and how she involves Fordham students in her scholarly work. 

How did you become interested in Shakespeare? 

I grew up watching Bollywood adaptations of Shakespeare. I also had a fantastic teacher—a fellow woman of color, Dr. Amina Alyal, who made me feel like people like me could own Shakespeare. 

Why is Shakespeare important to the average person? What can we learn from him? 

When most people think of him, they imagine an old, balding, middle-aged, historical, costumed guy on a pedestal who is not relevant to their lives. This is what some of my students imagine before they come to my class. But that is not how we teach Shakespeare here. In London especially, there are multiple histories of Shakespeare. You of course have the Globe, a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, which has been putting on plays since 1977. You have the British Asian company, Tara Arts, which has been doing Shakespeare since before then. There is also a Black theater company called Talawa Theatre, which has been doing Shakespeare since 1991, when they put on Antony and Cleopatra. All of these intersecting histories are important to note. I think students also realize how diverse people’s histories intersect with Shakespeare when they see a woman of color in London teaching them Shakespeare. 

But apart from these several legacies, I also think that Shakespeare is important for the average person because of the conversations that his work enables. A couple of weeks ago, my class went to see an amazing queer adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare and Race Festival is opening at the Globe very soon. And our students want to have these conversations: How is Shakespeare relevant to our lives? So we talk about how he is making an appearance in social justice issues, in agency, in issues about gender that are happening today. My focus is always on what Shakespeare can do for us, what he has done for us, and how we can shape Shakespeare to talk about what is important for us today.

What is your favorite Shakespeare play? 

That is such a difficult question for me because there are many favorites, depending on my mood. My current favorite is A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it is overlooked quite a lot. People think it’s a silly play with fairies, but there are actually deeply embedded issues of consent to be explored there, as well as queerness.

In my Shakespeare course, the plays l teach vary according to what is being performed around London. This semester, we studied A Midsummer Night’s DreamRomeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Hamlet. We also saw a queer production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a production of The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe, and engaged with a Bollywood movie of Romeo and Juliet in the seminar.

What do you love about Fordham London?  

We have a great community here, including Vanessa Beever, senior director of Fordham London; Mary Bly, chair of Fordham’s English department; our great support staff; and colleagues who make time for each other, despite being adjuncts.

Mary has been a part of this community for a long time, even though she is based in New York. She herself visited our campus to teach the Shakespeare course. Although this was around 8 years ago, she has a great grasp on what Fordham London students need. She has given me feedback on the course and assignment design from time to time. She is also a guest speaker on my podcast Women and Shakespeare.

I have especially found great leadership and collaborative support from Mary and Vanessa. It’s great to see women in these leadership roles because women are often not included in the rooms where decisions about their future are made. It’s a breath of fresh air for my students to see them in these positions, and it gives me hope to be working in an institution that respects women. 

You create podcasts about Shakespeare with your students. How does that work? 

My podcast Women and Shakespeare invites experts, local playwrights, academics, novelists, and actresses—the culture makers of the U.K.—to talk about how Shakespeare is used to amplify the voices of women today and how women are redefining him and his work.

One of my guests, Kathryn Pogson, talked about issues of consent in Richard III and how these are relevant today. Another guest, Doña Croll, told us how she imagined Cleopatra as a sharp political operator as opposed to just sexy and sultry and how the treatment of Cleopatra by the Romans can be compared to the way in which the British press treated Meghan Markle. So they provide nuanced perspectives not only on women characters, but also on how Shakespeare’s plays are pertinent to issues today.

On my podcast, students have a chance to be researchers, interviewers, or producers. They also receive credit on the podcast. I think it’s a very meaningful way for the students to engage with local culture makers. I firmly believe that to be a global citizen, you have to learn how to be a local elsewhere, and this helps them to not only meet local culture makers and learn from them, but also to co-create a resource that is useful for themselves and their communities. I also think this is a great way of decolonizing education because you’re not going somewhere with just the aim of what you can take from them, but also the aim of what you can give back to your academic and social communities. 

What do you hope your students take away from your course? 

Anyone can harness Shakespeare’s cultural power and bring it back to their communities. Shakespeare need not be inaccessible—his work should be made to work for everyone.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Taylor is a visual storytelling strategist in Fordham University's marketing and communications department, where she documents University life through photography and video. Since joining Fordham in 2018, she has served as a writer, photographer, videographer, and social media manager, dividing her time between University Marketing and Communications and the Office of the President. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from Stony Brook University's School of Communication and Journalism and her master's degree in public media from Fordham University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Her work has appeared on NPR, NBC New York, and amNewYork METRO.