by Dalton Greene ’22

For many in the English department, the spring semester is a time of celebration: department award winners are announced, our seniors are sent off with care, and all reflect on another successful year in the books. For English professor Penelope Geng, this sense of success is especially notable, as this semester marked the publication of her first book. 

This book, titled Communal Justice in Shakespeare’s England: Drama, Law, and Emotion, published in April 2021 by the University of Toronto Press, is already garnering attention. Examining early modern plays, sermons, legal manuals, and other sources, the book argues for the vital work of drama—particularly Shakespeare’s plays—in preserving a culture of participatory justice and lay legalism in a period when the law was becoming professionalized. In doing so, it sheds light on the ways in which history and literature have shaped modern notions of justice, punishment, and witnessing. Reviewers have taken notice of its value, praising the work for its originality and fresh contributions to the field of early modern literary studies. 

So, how did Professor Geng reach this point, with a polished final product ready for publication? I was able to talk with her about the process, which spanned nearly a decade and took her everywhere from The Huntington Library in San Marino, California to the British Library in London, England. And while much of the actual research and writing along the way was an independent endeavor, Professor Geng emphasized the importance of collaboration and community in bringing the project to fruition. 

“I’m the sort of person who does best when I’m working within a community,” she revealed, noting the support she received from colleagues in the English department. Whether checking in about her manuscript’s progress over lunch, exchanging and workshopping proposals, or offering valuable organizational contacts, her fellow Macalester English professors provided assistance when and wherever they could. 

But it wasn’t only faculty who encouraged her in her work; Professor Geng also mentioned the key role students played. Those who have taken her introductory and advanced Shakespeare courses (ENGL 115 and ENGL 310, respectively) pushed her to approach the plays under study in new ways, deepening her readings and offering new perspectives to consider. She also acknowledged the contributions of Sam Greenstein ‘18 and Amy Vandervelde ‘21, who served as research assistants and helped to keep the finer details of the manuscript in order. 

The sense of community which motivated Professor Geng while she was writing the book is now coming full circle to play a big part in its release as well. “I’m so happy to share it with the world, with family, friends, and students,” she added at the end of our conversation. We at The Words are certainly excited to read the book and to celebrate it at the official book launch in the fall semester (details TBD, but watch future editions for more information). We also would like to thank Professor Geng for sharing some of her experience with us and commend her for all of the hard work that went into so successfully seeing her first book through!