Kean Adjunct Professor Is Lawyer by Day and Shakespeare Scholar by Night
William Shakespeare’s plays are filled with references to the law, something that is not lost on Jeffrey W. Herrmann, a partner of a New Jersey law firm, who has a passion for Shakespeare that he has been sharing with Kean students as an adjunct professor for more than four years.
Herrmann has taught the Shakespeare Survey course in the School of English Studies at night since Fall 2016, while also working as managing partner at Cohn Lifland Pearlman Herrmann & Knopf in Saddle Brook.
“You make the time for the things you love to do,” he said.
Herrmann said he was introduced to Shakespeare in junior high school when his class took a bus trip to Stratford, Connecticut, and he saw his first play. Later, a professor at Columbia University opened his eyes to the beauty and lasting impact of the works of “the Bard of Avon,” to the point where he would sometimes skip boring law classes and sit in on Shakespeare classes.
“You can enjoy Shakespeare your whole life, and it feels different to you at different times in your life,” Herrmann said. “I hope my students get infected with the Shakespeare bug like I was.”
Several of Herrmann’s students said his enthusiasm for Shakespeare is undeniable. Emerald Awuttey from Elizabeth is a graduate student at Kean who took Herrmann’s class in 2018, a year before she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in English.
“Professor Herrmann is undoubtedly one of the best professors I have had during my studies at Kean, if not the best. He really loves what he does,” she said. “His enthusiasm motivated most students who complained about the complexity of Shakespeare to change their minds about the subject. They ended up loving it.”
Frank Giamella from Kenilworth, who will graduate from Kean in January 2021 with a degree in theatre technology and design, is currently taking the Shakespeare Survey class.
“One thing he does to make people not afraid of the language is to highlight the jokes that Shakespeare wrote into his plays,” he said. “And, he brings historical context to the plays so you understand the events that Shakespeare was writing about.”
Herrmann has been a lawyer for 44 years, and this year received a New Jersey Law Journal professional excellence award as a mentor in the legal profession. He said marking up students’ papers is not much different from editing the legal briefs of a young lawyer.
In his law career, Shakespeare sometimes also plays a leading role.
“I've used Shakespeare in openings, closings, arguing with judges, and in briefs, usually with some effect. But sometimes, maybe not,” he said. “Sometimes poetry says things more effectively than ordinary language and words.”
Herrmann sees no irony in the often-quoted words of Shakespeare from Henry VI, “Let’s kill all the lawyers.” He said it is misunderstood.
“It is really a pro-lawyer line. It really says that lawyers and courts are critical for maintaining an orderly society. He put it in to make the point that without a rightful authority in control, you have anarchy.”
Herrmann has seen productions of Shakespeare’s plays hundreds of times. Each semester, he takes his class to dinner and a production and has promised the students who are learning remotely during the pandemic that he will arrange an outing in the future.
“I think that if you are willing, a class like this can have a long-term effect on you. It can open your mind to Shakespeare and theatre for the rest of your life,” he said.
Spenser Williams, a junior theatre major from Sicklerville in Camden County, is using what he learned in the Shakespeare Survey class last semester in his role as Friar Laurence in a Kean Theatre Conservatory production of Romeo and Juliet on Zoom.
“I’m super excited for this journey and have been exploring the original text in a style similar to that of Professor Herrmann, where I read, re-read and break down the passages and sometimes even use different narration styles,” Williams said. “Professor Herrmann has definitely inspired me, and I appreciate his passion for teaching.”