Cambridge students have been given timetables bearing “trigger warnings” to alert them that a lecture on the works of Shakespeare could be upsetting.

In the English faculty’s notes on lectures document, students were warned that a lecture discussing the plays Titus Andronicus and The Comedy of Errors would include “discussions of sexual violence” and “sexual assault”.

Titus Andronicus, which the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington described as a “masterly study of the nature of grief”, is widely regarded as Shakespeare’s most violent work due to its bloody depictions of rape, murder and cannibalism. The discussion of the two plays, which also features Sarah Kane’s notoriously violent 1995 play Blasted, was described as addressing the question: “When do we laugh at violence, and why?”

A university spokesperson said that “it is not a policy of the English faculty to have such warnings”, adding: “Some lecturers indicate that some sensitive material will be covered in a lecture by informing the English faculty admin staff, who prepare the faculty’s notes on lectures which are distributed to English students.”

“This is entirely at the lecturer’s own discretion and is in no way indicative of a faculty-wide policy.”

Nonetheless, some academics and theatre professionals were critical of the move. David Crilly, artistic director at the Cambridge Shakespeare festival, told the Telegraph: “If a student of English literature doesn’t know that Titus Andronicus contains scenes of violence, they shouldn’t be on the course.”

“This degree of sensitivity will inevitably curtail academic freedom. If the academic staff are concerned they might say something students find uncomfortable they will avoid doing it.”

Gillian Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge University, said the decision would probably leave academics “very annoyed”.

The use of trigger warnings on university courses has garnered criticisms that universities are overprotective of students’ sensibilities. While trigger warnings have become increasingly pervasive in recent years, particularly in the US, concerns have been raised over their use in a rigorous academic context.

Those in favour of trigger warnings argue that they are simply designed to protect individuals who suffer from PTSD from becoming distressed when faced with stimuli that could evoke their personal experiences of trauma.

Some mental health professionals have advised against trigger warnings on the basis that exposure to potentially uncomfortable discussions is more conducive to healing than avoidance.

Another lecture on “Violence” and a seminar titled “Inhibiting the Body” also reportedly bore trigger warnings.