Only one third of major American colleges now require their English majors to take a Shakespeare course, according to a recent survey.
The finding has fuelled concerns that the great authors are giving way to lightweight academic fads.
The National Alumni Forum, a right-leaning, non-profit-making group, contacted the top 50 institutions in the popular annual guide to American colleges by US News and World Report, along with 20 regional colleges. Only 23 insisted on Shakespeare.
The research was prompted by protests last year when Georgetown University, whose alumni include President Clinton, dropped requirements that English students study at least two authors from Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.
In the Ivy League, it was found, only Harvard has stood by King Lear and Macbeth. The results brought an explosive reaction from the venerable actor Charlton Heston, known as a spokesman of conservative causes, but also fresh from a role on the celebrity cast of Kenneth Branagh's film of Hamlet. "Universities without Shakespeare? Unthinkable. Language without Shakespeare? Unspeakable," he said. Paradoxically, Shakespeare has never been more in demand as a screenwriter, with Hollywood turning out a mass of films.
On the bright side, however, students now have plenty of other things to think about. The survey found that the topics replacing Shakespeare have a heavy dose of sexuality, gender studies and literary theory. Other English subjects ranged from "British and American Boarding School Fiction" to "Detective Fiction as Social Critique", as well as gangster films, jazz, and at one college, "Marketing Miss America".