By Keely Sexton
Suparna Roychoudhury, associate professor of English, has a real appetite for the challenge of new experiences and ideas. A former software developer from a family of engineers, she has interests that have always spilled beyond the confines of academic disciplines. She is especially fascinated by concepts related to the intersections between culture, knowledge and the mind — regardless of their provenance.
Although she’s an internationally respected Shakespeare scholar, her work doesn’t stop at the boundaries of literary studies.
“I’m interested in the history of science — in which I include the history of philosophy, medicine and technology — and how those fields intersect with literature, culture, poetry and aesthetics,” she said.
Roychoudhury’s childhood and schooling helped her see the world from a variety of perspectives. She spent her earlier years in a number of countries, moving from her birthplace of India to different parts of Europe, Asia and Australia.
As she neared the end of her undergraduate studies and with a tech career underway, her life took a turn when her college advisor suggested she pursue a doctorate in Shakespeare — and she went for it. “It seemed outside of the realm of possibility, and I had not ever thought about it, but that suggestion prompted me to take a gamble and see how far I could take my passion,” she said.
When Roychoudhury was offered a position at Mount Holyoke in 2012, she jumped at the opportunity to work at a liberal arts college that engages its students on an intimate level. “I was very attracted to the idea of working at an institution where it’s really about the curriculum and the instruction and the smaller classroom,” she said.
Beyond its academic environment, Mount Holyoke College provides Roychoudhury with the flexibility to teach and learn in new areas. “I’ve been able to pursue my research in Shakespearean drama and also teach in other areas, including Renaissance poetry and modern-day transnational literatures,” she said. “I have a very supportive, receptive department that lets me make those kinds of moves.”
Roychoudhury’s 2018 book “Phantasmatic Shakespeare: Imagination in the Age of Early Modern Science” explores how the Shakespearean view of imagination is connected to the scientific revolutions of early modern Europe — bringing her academic interests full circle, from her college background in technology to the move to literature in grad school and a growing interest in psychology and then back to science again.
“I’m looking at how we arrived at our modern notion of imagination,” she said. “Nowadays, imagination means creativity — being inspired. But in Shakespeare’s era, imagination was the brain’s ability to make pictures. There was a time when imagination was closer to what we would call cognitive theory rather than poetry.”
In her book, Roychoudhury describes how, by inventing so many fascinating characters who are also imagining people, Shakespeare underscored the artistic quality of imagination.
“Imagination was a key concept in early philosophies of psychology, whereas now it has shifted to being more about the creative, artistic process. Shakespeare is part of that shift,” she said. “I wanted to show that Shakespeare’s understanding of imagination was influenced by the explosion of scientific discoveries that happened around the time that he lived, which challenged many areas of knowledge, including ideas about the mind.”
For her research, Roychoudhury has visited archives around the world, consulting early printed books from the 16th and 17th centuries. Reading different types of texts, she connects Shakespeare’s plays and poetry to nonartistic writings of his time.
“To understand a big idea like imagination, you have to really understand a whole culture, everything that people were thinking and worrying about,” she said. “In my case, it meant reading books on medicine and healing, as well as religious and theological texts, as well as scientific works on anatomy, natural history, physics, even mathematics.”
Roychoudhury’s expansive perspective is reflected in her educational philosophy. She believes that studying the humanities prepares students for life beyond college, wherever it may lead.
“Our humanities students end up everywhere. We introduce them to ideas and the history of ideas. We teach them to work with language. We help them find beauty and meaning in the world. We are training them to understand differences and to negotiate change,” she said. “That knowledge and those skills are applicable across all disciplines and professions.”
When Roychoudhury is not teaching or writing, she is at work expanding her collection of indoor plants, experimenting with recipes from around the world and planning future travel adventures. As with her scholarship, she sees a theme among her personal pursuits.
“I feel that my interests are all about journeying in some way: travel to different periods of time, travel to different places in the world. I like things that transport me,” she said.
Roychoudhury won the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship in 2020.