Shakespearean March Madness: Our Champion

After over a month of voting and debate, after five rounds of combat, our initial 32 competitors have left only one standing:

Queen Margaret, the she-wolf of France, the tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide, reigns supreme over all Shakespearean combatants.

In a stunningly close final match, Margaret and Henry went blow-for-blow all weekend. For a while it looked as though Henry just might pull victory out of his back pocket, but Margaret got a powerful second wind yesterday. In the end, she won over Henry 27-23, demonstrating the tenacity and ruthlessness that sees her through four plays and decades of war. Margaret demonstrated no mercy throughout the tournament, mowing down Hermia, garroting Goneril, outwitting Iago, and enacting sweet revenge on “that valiant crookback prodigy,” Richard III. The readers have spoken, and you think Margaret is the toughest, roughest dame in the house.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the polls and discussions during the past month! This tournament has been so enjoyable to operate, and I hope you’ve all had as much of a good time as I have. I think next year I’ll start taking nominations for the brackets in February to see if you’d like some new blood in the mix.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 25 March 2011

This week: the value of teachers and the quality of education, some international news, and a slew of focused essays on Shakespeare’s works.

  • An international panel is encouraging the U.S. to raise teachers’ status. Cass says: Whenever this topic comes up, I remember the fantastic speech Sam Seaborne makes in an episode of The West Wing, when he says that schools should be palaces, that teachers should be making six-figure salaries and that the competition to be the best should be fierce. Why aren’t teachers held to the same standards and given the same respect (and salaries) as doctors? Surely they hold a place of equivalent significance to a society’s success.
  • At the same time, U.S. colleges are getting praise from the Brits (who are currently facing their own struggles with education). Sarah says: Hmmm, maybe we do some things right…
  • This article about students texting in class has an interesting link to Shakespeare — towards the end of the article, the teacher discusses methods she’s taken to switch things up in her classroom and encourage her students’ attention to stay on her and on their work rather than on their phones — and one of those methods is getting students up to act out scenes from Hamlet rather than just reading them. Cass says: I wonder if this might be a way to convince some teachers who are still reluctant about classroom staging to give it a try — after all, if your student has a text in his hand and everyone’s eyes on him in the center of the classroom, he’s probably not going to be whipping out his smartphone for a Facebook update.
  • The British education secretary has proposed an initiative to get students as young as 11 reading 50 books a year. Cass says: I think this is a great idea, and I’m confused by all the hullabaloo it’s generated. On the one hand, folk are saying that the government shouldn’t be mandating literature, that they shouldn’t be giving citizens a required reading list (and, it’s worth noting, they aren’t — the proposal has some suggestions, but no forced list), and on the other hand, some are saying that if students just read any fifty books, what’s the point? If they just read “junk,” what’s the benefit? Shouldn’t quality matter more than quantity? Well, I can’t see how getting students — or adults! — reading more is a bad thing. I’d rather someone reading fifty trashy romance novels or than someone who reads nothing at all. Brain candy books have merit, too — your imagination and the language centers of your brain get stimulated whether it’s classic literature or not. In order to get them reading quality, you first have to get them reading at all.
  • In an age when celebrities like Victoria Beckham declare that they’ve never read a book in their lives with no apparent shame or dismay about that, it’s encouraging to see this list of the 15 Most Well-Educated Celebrities.
  • Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust has had a series of Shakespeare debates featuring students aged 15-18. Cass says: I love this idea. From the quotes this article displays, it looks like it’s really getting the students into the nitty-gritty of the play, making them think critically about the character dynamics and the human emotions swirling about in Othello.
  • An interesting op-ed, in the wake of the earthquake in Japan, on how Shakespeare’s words can help cope with grieving.
  • An essay from a Catholic perspective on Henry V and the idea of a “just war.” This essay looks both at Shakespeare’s text, the historical reality, and the scripture relating to declaring war. Cass says: Even if you’re not Catholic, it’s an interesting read, and something worth a dramaturg’s notice.
  • Open Shakespeare has an intriguing essay examining the Macbeths’ marriage. The author asserts that Lord and Lady M are the only “real personalities,” the well-developed characters in the play (Cass says: Not sure I agree there — I would argue that Banquo and Macduff have a fair bit of depth going on as well) and that they are “Shakespeare’s happiest married couple.”
  • The British Museum will be hosting a “blockbuster Shakespeare show” in advance of the 2012 Olympics. “London 1612: Shakespeare’s Theatre of the World … will explore the role of the capital as an emerging international city 400 years ago, interpreted through his plays. The blockbuster show will include more than 150 exhibits, including important paintings from national and private collections, rare jewels and manuscripts including a First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.” Cass says: As though I needed more things tempting me into a trip to London.

Spring 2011 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 3

We return for the third and final session of the Spring 2011 Thesis Festival.

Characters Performing for Characters in the Plays of Philip Massinger, by Brian Falbo (MLitt candidate)

Brian begins with a quick introduction to The Roman Actor and the scene presented by Katie Crandol, Elizabeth Rentfro, and Liz Lodato. Brian then states that he divides performance-within-plays into two major categories: frame performance (plays, masques, religious ceremonies, and legal proceedings) and natural performance (deceit, manipulation, disguise). The Roman Actor contains examples of both types, often layered upon each other. He also distinguishes the on-stage, in-play, scripted audience from the in-theatre audience (who, he notes apologetically, matters less for the purposes of his thesis). In The Roman Actor, the eponymous actor, Paris, presents an idealized version of theatre, with the ability to instruct virtue. Brian then looks at the arbitrary political executions and murders of retribution, relating them to the frame devices and examining Domitian’s use of theatre as thought-control on his audience. Domitian’s attempts fail entirely, because “theatre is suggestion and not thought-control,” and Domitian has to resort repeatedly to his only real power – that of life and death over his subjects, executing those who displease him by failing to get the message of the performance. After Massinger displays Domitian’s failure three times, he moves to the Empress, whose failure is different in that “she attempts to make the theatre conform to her life,” to the extent that she genuinely fears the death of the actor in whom she is interested; the Empress is incapable of separating role from actor. The blurred lines culminate when, during another performance, Domitian takes a role and then uses a real weapon and kills the actor Paris. In Paris, Domitia, and Domitian, Massinger presents three extremes of theatre, all of which critically fail, suggesting that “a compromise of all three viewpoints is a possible” reconciliation — though Massinger does not suggest how to go about finding that middle ground. Brian suggests that this play, Massinger’s first as a house playwright, may be Massinger’s “manifesto,” a demonstration of three extremes of theatre which he vows not to stray too near to.

“Perchance to Dream”: Shakespeare’s Dream Imagery within Early Modern Dream Culture, by Melissa Tolner (MLitt candidate)

Melissa begins by introducing the concept of dreams, in personal, scientific, and historical terms. She cites several sources for dreamlore in early modern England: Greek and Roman sources, medieval English folklore, and religious texts. She also notes the overlap of dream symbolism with sympathetic magic and the occult. Additionally, she covers the history of publications of books on dreams and dream interpretation in the 16th century, which included such strange notations such as “if one ate lettuce in one’s dream, death would follow.” Melissa suggests that dreams on stage bridge the gap between realistic story and overt allegory. She examines dreams within Richard III, beginning with Clarence’s dire premonition (presented by Bobby Byers and AJ Sclafani), full of macabre imagery, designed to move audience sympathies to align with Clarence. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Melissa examines Shakespeare’s inheritance of themes from medieval traditions and Chaucer’s, with Nick Bottom’s dream speech presented by Angelina LaBarre. Melissa also notes that A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains only a single actual dream — Hermia’s nightmare in Act Two (which Angelina also presents). Melissa then moves to Romeo and Juliet and Mercutio’s speech about “the fairy’s midwife,” better known as the Queen Mab speech (presented by Elizabeth Rentfro and AJ). She compares this discussion with Romeo’s description of his ironically optimistic dream in 5.1, where the audience witnesses Romeo analyze his own dream. Melissa concludes by commenting on the point of intersection between Shakespeare’s audience and our own as the key place for finding the transcendent meaning of dreams on the stage.

“I told you, if those should holde their peace, the stones would cry”: Drama and the Emergence of a Caroline Culture of Censorship, by David Ashton (MLitt candidate)

David begins by reminding us of the dates of the Caroline reign (1625-1649, Charles I’s beheading) and of Carolina drama (1625-1642, the closing of the theatres). He then introduces his focus: what did playwrights have to say about censorship and how did they contend with it? As a point of reference, James I exercised censorship twice as often as Elizabeth had, but Charles I exercised censorship five times as much as his father. David details the various (and numerous) institutions which Charles directed or constructed to deal with matters of censorship. He then contrasts these methods with the actions of Parliament over the authority of the King, first banning playing on Sundays in 1641, then closing the theatres entirely in 1642. David introduces the scholarship of Annabel Patterson, who focused on the idea of examining “functional ambiguity” within early modern drama. He then shares his working definition of censorship. David then moves into looking at specific hearings on censorship of printed works and the 1000-page polemic against theatre, Histriomastix, written by William Prynne, for which Prynne was tried in Star Chamber for slander and libel against the King and his people. David identifies this trial (late 1632-early 1634) and its judgment as the turning point for censorial efforts in the Caroline era. Prynne’s downfall found its way into several plays of the period, as playwrights enjoyed themselves at his expense, and James Shirley, who went on the attack against Prynne, rose to a prominent position in court. David notes that this sequence of events shows that the theatre was not always at odds with the censorial authorities, but sometimes benefited from their actions. David concludes by linking these events to the idea of a “culture of censorship” in the Caroline era.

What a marathon of a day it’s been — Congratulations to all of the presenters for their fine work!

(Read more from Session 1 and Session 2).

The Ides of March are come…

You can’t get around the Shakespeare-oriented Internet today without discovering that it’s the Ides of March. The #idesofmarch tag on Twitter is pretty interesting — varying degrees of clever jokes, historical facts, and complete nonsense, with a lot of people saying RIP Caesar and even more saying “Watch out!” or that they hope nothing bad happens today. The Ides of March has become, through a slightly weird cultural association, a bad-luck day, inauspicious, much like Friday the 13th. I wonder what Caesar would make of it to know that, two thousand and fifty-five years later, his death remains so prominently remembered. I also wonder how much Shakespeare has to do with that — Would Caesar’s legacy remain so prominent if not for Shakespeare’s dramatic presentation of his death? Would Plutarch and Suetonius be enough to prick the memories of western civilization? I don’t think we can ever know — You can’t prove a negative, after all. But I was a classicist in a former scholastic life, so I’ve read my Roman historians like any good Elizabethan schoolboy would have done, so I can say this much for certain — Shakespeare certainly told the story in more dramatic and exciting way.

Given the day, I thought it might be a nice opportunity for a mini-lesson on rhetoric. I use Mark Antony’s eulogy for Caesar (or, at least, the first chunk of it) as my standard example for rhetorical exercises, because it’s just so beautifully constructed. It’s genius for the character within the world of the play, and it’s genius for what it tells an actor playing the part. I had the great fortune last week to test out my rhetoric workshop (still very much a work-in-progress) with groups of visiting students from Colorado College and the University of South Dakota. As giddy as I get playing with rhetoric on my own, it’s so much more exciting to bounce ideas off of other people, lead them through what I know, and then see what they find that I didn’t notice.

So. Mark Antony, grief-stricken but already plotting revenge, convinces Brutus and Cassius to let him speak at Caesar’s funeral. Brutus goes first, giving a prose speech where he explains that he killed the tyrant though he loved the man. When Antony steps up, he’s initially fighting a losing battle. He addresses it thus:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

I wish I had a way to put my rhetorical markup in the blog, but I don’t think the system will support it, so I’ll have to talk you through instead.

The dominant devices in use are those of repetition and those arranging contrast. He repeats key words throughout the speech, reminding the audience both that “Brutus said he was ambitious” and that “Brutus is an honorable man.” What I like is the build; he starts out just repeating words (polyptoton on “grievous”), then he moves into phrases, then, by the end, it’s full lines (diacope and epistrophe). There’s a sort of confidence-building you can see in the way Antony structures his repetitions. But why repeat those words specifically? Well, the very repetition of those ideas forces his audience to call the truth of them into question. Each time he says Brutus is honorable, he’s making the plebs wonder if that is, in fact, the case. That he mates the repetition with carefully seeded rhetorical questions (erotema) amplifies this effect. The focus on honor is also Antony’s way of avoiding blame; no one can accuse him of inciting the people against Brutus if he keeps telling them that Brutus is honorable. What one of the students in our workshop pointed out last week is that the repetition could also be a way of re-hooking the audience if he senses that he’s starting to lose them, to pull them back in. In this way, the rhetoric gives acting clues not just for Antony, but for the plebs as well.

Antony’s devices of direction are sometimes of building force (auxesis), but more often of arranging contrast (antithesis). His either-ors contrast Caesar’s generosity with his supposed ambition. He wants his audience to draw distinctions between what they knew about Caesar and what Brutus said about Caesar, between Caesar’s actions towards the people and Brutus’s claims of ravenous ambition, and then to decide for themselves that Brutus was wrong to kill him. Whereas Brutus had to justify his actions, Antony doesn’t have to justify anything. He simply lays out facts about what Caesar did, what ambition should look like, and what Brutus said, and lets the plebs drawn their own conclusions. This contrast works hand-in-hand with the repetitions, as noted above. By circling around to the same ideas over and over again, he reels the audience in, taking them by degrees away from their allegiance to Brutus.

So, what does this tell us about Antony as a character? What clues does it give an actor? As one of the students in last week’s workshop said, he’s smart. Smart as a whip, in fact. The devices he uses are clever, and all the more so because he’s using them while under emotional duress, grieving for a friend, and with every awareness that the mob could turn violently against him. But Antony keeps it together. He presents his ideas clearly, and the constant repetitions seem to indicate that he knew from the start of the speech where he wanted it to go. He knows how to bring his audience along with him; the rhetorical questions, the contrast drawn by his antithetical statements, and his use of repetition lead the plebs to his way of thinking without his having to tell them directly what to think. They get there themselves, and that’s so much more effective for Antony’s purposes. His thoughts have a distinct and recognizable pattern.

Until the very end of the speech, he seems very much in control of his words, but then he breaks off, overwhelmed by emotion — a device known as aposiopesis. The end of the speech presents choices for an actor: Is Antony truly overwhelmed with passion, forcing him to break off his speech, or is he playing the emotion up to win the pity of his audience? Considering how methodical Antony has been up to this point, I would say that the emotional outburst is a calculation, another way Antony is manipulating the crowd. But an actor could definitely choose to play it differently, to show Antony as more emotional, and to connect his real heartbreak to his desire for revenge that much more strongly. One of the greatest things about rhetorical analysis is that it so often isn’t about finding the “right” answer — it’s about discovering options.

There’s so much I could say about this speech and this play — I didn’t even touch on Antony’s use of metonymy, and of course his address to the plebs goes on for another 130 lines or so, with plenty more rhetoric to pull apart. But all of that will have to wait — fortunately, I get to write a Study Guide for Julius Caesar, and we’re holding a special Teacher Seminar for it in August, so I’ll have plenty of time and plenty of opportunities to keep engaging with these fOCSinating words.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 25 February 2011

The links this week have a somewhat historical bent — using Shakespeare to find connections between the past and the present.

  • The New York Times assembled a look at how politicians on both sides of the aisle around the time of the American Civil War used Shakespeare in their arguments: “In a different age, politicians quoting Shakespeare might not have gotten far with voters; in Bard-mad 19th-century America, it was a sure way to win over a skeptical audience.”
  • The Tempest and Thomas Jefferson: The University of Houston hosted a two-day seminar on bringing together ideas of political theory and Renaissance literature, including a lecture on Shakespeare’s influence on Thomas Jefferson. Cass says: Shakespeare, politics, and my beloved TJ? I’m not sure how you get much better than that.
  • We’re seeing more and more this year about the King James Bible, as 2011 marks its 400th anniversary. This article posits an interesting link between Shakespeare and the KJB, particularly in regards to teaching: “A gay, Jewish professor of mine once observed that he proferred teaching English literature in bible-belt colleges in his native US rather than in east-coast liberal arts institutions (or, indeed, English universities in south-west England) because the students ‘got so many of the references easier’.” Cass says: I was actually discussing this with a few friends just the other day, and it’s part of why I feel comparative religions should be mandatory in high schools. Students should be able to understand the references at the heart of so many different cultures — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan — they’re all part of literature’s heritage. Regardless of what or whether you believe in any, all, or none of them, you should at least know the stories.
  • Tom Hodgkinson, owner and operate of the New Idler’s Academy, has opened a 18th-century style coffee house in London, where he hopes to host lectures, discussions, and lessons on such varied and oft-esoteric topics as philosophy, grammar, Latin, rhetoric, maths, carpentry, and gardening. He states, “The taste for public learning is definitely coming back… Over the last half-century, an odd division has grown up between two forms of education: one supposedly old-fashioned, didactic and bloodless; the other progressive, relative, and depressingly fact-free. There’s no reason why intellectual instruction shouldn’t be entertaining as well as rigorous.” Cass says: Sounds like the kind of place I’d love to spend my time. And if you need to fly someone in to talk about rhetoric, I’d cheerfully volunteer!
  • Another take on educational reform, via Jamie Oliver, the “Naked Chef.” He brings folks from the tops of their professions in to work with kids who have failed out of school. Sarah says: I particularly like what the kids have to say about the experience at the end of the article.
  • The Edmonton Journal declares “Pursuit of knowledge just as worthy as pursuit of career.” Cass says: I could just weep with happiness when I see that sentiment shared by others, because it’s 100% exactly what I believe. Education for its own sake has value.

Have a good end-of-February, everyone — can you believe it’s almost March? OCS Education unanimously agrees that this is clearly nonsense, as surely it was the New Year just yesterday.

Shakespeare’s Plays as Primary Sources: The OCS at ACMRS

Last week, Sarah, former-intern Liz, and I went to Tempe, Arizona for the Arizona Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies conference. Their theme this year was Performance and Theatricality, so we saw it as a great opportunity to introduce the idea of the OCS to a new region and a new group of scholars. ACMRS scholars are primarily historians, not theatre practitioners, so they’re not a group that we’ve had as much interaction with. Sarah will be writing more about our experiences as practical-minded scholars in a more theory-driven world, but I wanted to share a general summary of our presentations. We decided to focus our panel around the idea of using Shakespeare’s plays as primary sources, capitalizing on the idea of his plays as both products of and reflections of late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England.

Liz, presenting at her first conference, opened our panel with an overview of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions and how we learn about them through the plays. She discussed the indications in the texts that audience contact was not only in existence but actively planned for, incorporated into the structure of the plays. Sarah and I demonstrated by using one of our favorite “casting the audience” scenes: Portia and Nerissa describing in 1.2 of The Merchant of Venice. Liz also talked about Shakespeare writing for specific members of his company, about the early modern rehearsal process, and about the use of cue scripts. Sarah and I got up again to show how Shakespeare could lead an actor to an emotional response just by capitalizing on the effects of inserting false cues into a speech. In another example from The Merchant of Venice, Shylock speaks Salarino’s cue, “have my bond,” four times before it’s actually Salarino’s turn to speak. The effect is one of mounting frustration on Salarino’s part, entirely appropriate to the scene. Liz also discussed the primacy of language when studying Shakespeare, as his language demonstrates the efficacy of his stagecraft. She ended by talking about Shakespeare’s epilogues, which frequently ask pardon and approval from the audience.

Sarah, on her third conference since 2011 started, presented on using Shakespeare’s plays as primary sources for social history. She suggested that early modern theatre reflects early modern English societal customs in many ways, and that if the conventions on the stage were wildly different from those practiced in reality, the audiences would have known that and perhaps found the plays less compelling. Her paper narrowed the broad range of social history down to courtship, particularly the rituals of obtaining (or evading) parental permission for marriage. Sarah looked at, among other scenes, Petruchio’s wooing of Katharina and the dowry negotiations at play in The Taming of the Shrew.

My paper, and also my first presentation at a conference, was on the use of Shakespeare’s history plays to teach British history — not only as a structural outline for learning about the monarchs of the medieval and early modern periods, but also as a kind of historiography to learn how the English of Shakespeare’s day thought about their own cultural heritage. I built this paper off of a project from last year’s pedagogy course, where I designed a semester-long class around the subject. As I’ve worked further on the concept, I’ve aligned it strongly with the “Perspectives” section of our Study Guides, which encourages students to make connections between the world of the plays, Shakespeare’s world, and their own world. In my proposed course, I posit comparing modern American cultural myths to those that the English propagated about their own heritage. Finding the similarities and examining the differences could be a powerful way for students to relate emotionally to the past, and Shakespeare’s histories, filled with such captivating personalities, are an advantageous way to engage students with the concept.

I think the attendees received our panel quite positively. Several scholars stuck around after we finished, wanting to talk about the Playhouse, our programs, and the ongoing process of research and learning that occurs as we continue to work through early modern texts in our space. We also got to have, at the closing reception, a nice chat with the director of ACMRS, who wanted to know if we had any material for pre-schoolers. (Not just yet, but our new OCS Family Coordinator, Ben Ratkowski, may have something along those lines for us soon). I’m hoping we’ll see some of our new friends at the Blackfriars Conference in October.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 4 February 2011

This week brought us scholarship through Twitter, a new podcast from the OCS, enlightening research on Shakespeare’s world, and the ongoing debate about the humanities in education.

  • I had a blast during #AskShakespeare Day. This idea, cooked up by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, brought scholars from all over the world together to answer questions about Shakespeare posed on Twitter. It was so wonderful to see how many people out there cared enough to ask questions about Shakespeare, and I got to trade ideas with some great scholars. We did see the authorship question pop up a few times, and plenty of people wanted to ask scholars and practitioners what our favorite plays and characters are, but we also encountered a range of other questions, some with concrete answers, but many that invited speculation: What race was Othello, really? Why do people talk about Hamlet having an Oedipus complex? Did Shakespeare pursue his own publication? What’s the most gruesome scene in an early modern play? (Votes went to the heart-on-a-knife in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and the head-bashing in Tamburlaine — both of which you’ll be able to see at the Blackfriars next year!). What’s the most underrated of Shakespeare’s plays? How would the plays have been different if women had been allowed on the stage? The whole experiment was so entertaining and a real intellectual rush. I think we should do it once a month. Of course, I’m happy to answer questions any day of the year — just ping @OCS_Cass.
  • The first Actor-Scholar Council podcast is up and waiting for you to listen to it. Greg Phelps, Tyler Moss, Sarah Fallon, John Harrell, Chris Johnston, and Jeremiah Davis joined a panel of scholars to discuss The Comedy of Errors. We’ll be recording the Council session on Look About You next week.
  • If you’re within easy traveling distance of Staunton, be sure to see Shannon Schultz’s directing project, an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet, on February 7th and 8th. The Staunton Newsleader interviewed Shannon about the project. (Please note that the Newsleader article has the performance time wrong: the show will start at 8pm both nights).
  • “Hellraising Antics of Shakespearean Actors Revealed”: The London Telegraph has posted an interesting article on what recent research has revealed about the theatrical world in which Shakespeare lived. Kidnappings, riots, thefts, vandalism, all brought to light courtesy of the new Early Modern London Theatres database.
  • If you still haven’t read James Shapiro’s Contested Will, here’s another review praising it as “an entertaining reappraisal of Shakespeare’s enduring fOCSination and a conspiracy story worthy of play by the great man himself.”
  • Dale Salwak of Citrus College, CA, shares his approach to getting his students to love Shakespeare. Cass says: I agree with a lot of what he has to say — that students say they hate Shakespeare because they really hate the way it’s been taught, that you don’t need to waste time teaching the plot, that it’s okay for art to make demands of the audience — but I still think he’s missing some key elements. His approach remains very page-based, with the augmentation of audio recordings. There’s so much to be gained by teaching the plays as plays and making the students take on the responsibilities and decision-making of actors.
  • And, because no edition of Imprimis would be complete without some links discussing the value of the humanities in education: How Liberals Killed the Liberal Arts, and The Humanities in America: An Endangered Species?

Imprimis will be on hiatus next Friday, as I will be at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Conference in Phoenix, along with Sarah and intern Liz, so you’ll get a double-issue on February 18th. Sarah and I will be Tweeting from the conference as well, and I’ll be posting about it when we get back.

Book Review: Ruled Britannia

On yesterday’s #AskShakespeare day on Twitter, someone asked for recommendations on Shakespeare-related books of fiction. As it happens, yesterday I was about 50 pages from the end of an excellent alternate-history thriller featuring Shakespeare as the main character. I finished last night, and so now I’d like to recommend it to you all.

The premise of Harry Turtledove’s alternate history tale, Ruled Britannia, is that the Spanish Armada did manage to take over England in 1588. Philip II installs his daughter Isabella and her consort Albert on the throne of England, imprisons Elizabeth in the Tower, and returns England to Catholicism. Ten years later, Philip is dying, Elizabeth is yet imprisoned, and while most of the populace complies with the will of their Spanish overlords, a current of discontent still runs beneath the surface.

The driving plot of the book centers on William Shakespeare, presented as a humble playwright and an actor of middling skill, whose talent for composition gains the attention of those in high places. First, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, commissions Shakespeare to write a play to inspire the English people to an uprising. Loyal to Elizabeth, Burghley has been planning a revolt to occur after Philip’s death, but he wants words to inspire the masses to back his maneuver. For the topic, he chooses a story out of Tacitus: Boudicca, the Iceni queen who revolted against the Romans in the first century. At nearly the same time, one of the Spanish dons requests that Shakespeare craft a play to be a fitting epitaph to King Philip. Shakespeare writes both, and the company rehearses both, not knowing which they’ll actually mount. During the process, Shakespeare finds himself wishing the task had been given to another man — especially as the bodies of those who might impede his progress start piling up around him.

Turtledove includes lots of nice historical touches, and the cast of characters is well-researched and comprehensive. The book does a wonderful job bringing the world of early modern theatre to life, even with the adjustments made for the alternate history. Burbage and Kemp are major characters, with references to Burbage’s family’s theatrical history and to Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder. Marlowe’s still alive and writing plays at the beginning of the book, and he seems torn between admiring Shakespeare’s talent and sourly resenting that it has eclipsed his own. His probable historical murderers, Ingram Frizer and Nicholas Skeres, play shadowed but critical roles, clearing the path for Shakespeare’s success and Cecil’s rebellion, as does Thomas Phelippes, historically one of Francis Walsingham’s intelligencers, here a cunning double-agent. Robert Devereaux, known to our history as the traitorous Earl of Essex, makes an appearance towards the end of the book. Shakespeare’s opposite number throughout the book is Lope de Vega, one of Spain’s most prolific authors, whose reputation there is second only to Cervantes. Turtledove takes him out of his native land and brings him ashore with the Armada. The English theatre fOCSinates de Vega, and he becomes friends, of a sort, with Shakespeare and Burbage. His presence threatens the production of Boudicca, however, as the company clearly cannot rehearse with him hanging around. His presence augments the tension behind Shakespeare’s dilemma and keeps the action clipping along at an exciting pace.

The book is a goldmine for the Shakespeare-lover. Turtledove sprinkles his characters’ dialogues with lines from Shakespeare’s plays, and recognizing them can be a bit of a game to go along with following the main plot. I almost wish I’d kept a tally of how many I found while I was reading. While extremely clever, however, they could be a bit overwhelming in places, and occasionally they did seem somewhat forced, as though Turtledove just really wanted to include that line no matter how. He managed not to stray into seeming kitschy or cutesy with the references, however (which is not something that can be said of all novels featuring Shakespeare as a character); on the whole they were quite sly without feeling obnoxious. I also took issue with a few of the choices Turtledove made — for instance, having the company play Macbeth in 1597. I’m not arguing the date itself — in an alternate universe, I’m willing to entertain all kinds of shifting around of chronology. But Macbeth would just plain never have been written without King James on the throne, so that element jarred me out of Turtledove’s mostly-seamless historical diversion. I’m also not positive that Turtledove fully understands what iambic pentameter is and how it works, that it’s more than just ten syllables to a line — some of the lines he invented for Boudicca and King Philip don’t scan properly at all, even though he discusses them as though they’re perfect iambic lines. Despite those nitpicks of mine, however, his alterations generally hold together as a reasonable presentation of the early modern theatre world under slightly different conditions than we know it.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Ruled Britannia. Turtledove does an excellent job of relating the ability of language to move hearts and inspire an audience. He also gets his reader emotionally invested in the characters and their dire straits; by the end of the book, I passionately wanted to see Shakespeare and the company present Boudicca, and I wanted the rebellion to succeed, but I also cared about what happened to de Vega and the other side characters. Turtledove presents the humanity on both sides of the conflict quite well. The climax of the book is thus both thrilling and emotionally moving. I can cheerfully recommend Ruled Britannia as a delightful read to Shakespearean enthusiasts and other Anglophiles looking for high-quality brain candy.

The Playhouse Insider

I’m in the process of finalizing the premiere edition of The Playhouse Insider, the magazine that the OCS is producing, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell the Internet something about it. It looks fantastic, and I pretty much can’t wait to get it out into the universe for public consumption. I’m so excited about this project and the opportunities it’s going to have to grow in coming years.

We’ll be putting this publication out twice a year, in December to preview the Actors’ Renaissance Season, and in June to preview the Summer and Fall Seasons. Our goal for this magazine is to provide the readers with a look into different experiences of early modern theatre at the Blackfriars Playhouse. We’ve solicited articles from OCS actors and artists, from renowned scholars, and from members of the OCS community, and as a result this first issue has so much quality material. Whether you’ve been coming to ARS shows since they began in 2005, will be joining us for the first time in 2011, or are just interested from the far-ranging Internet, there will be so much in this magazine for you to enjoy.

Our artists’ contributions include a brief history of the ARS. I’m really glad we got this into print, because up until now, there hasn’t actually been any codified explanation of just how the ARS came to be. Now we’ll have it all set out for our own institutional records, and the information will also be available to any scholars or patrons who are interested in how experiment. If you’re unfamiliar with the Actors’ Renaissance Season, the basic concept is this: after years of adhering to Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions, the OCS wanted to push further and experiment with Shakespeare’s Rehearsal Conditions, putting on plays the way the King’s Men and other companies in the 16th- and 17th-centuries would have: without a director, working from cue scripts, making costume and prop and music decisions on their own, and setting their own rehearsal schedules. I think the ARS shows have so much energy and spirit — they’re just electrifying to watch — and it all comes out of the drive and ingenuity of the actors.

Those actors contributed to our artistic-focused articles. One is an in-depth conversation with veteran actor John Harrell, who has not only been an actor in every ARS so far, but who also has a hand in cutting the scripts for the season. Harrell talks about his process cutting scripts, the fun in working with unusual texts, and what he’s looking forward to tackling as an actor in the 2011 ARS. We also have veteran actors Rene Thornton, Ben Curns, and Chris Johnston sharing some of their favorite moments from Ren Seasons past. In both of these interviews, the articles make it so easy to see the actors’ enthusiasm for the ARS. They really seem to delight in the ownership of the plays that this season gives them, and they revel in the freedom to let their creativity take over.

We’re also excited and privileged to have some great articles from our scholastic community. Carole Levin, the Willa Cather Professor of History and Director of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Nebraska, contributed an article on the anonymous play Look About You, which meshes high history, low comedy, and lots of disguises. The play takes place during the reign of Henry II and features a young Robin Hood. Levin’s article examines the play in relationship to the rest of the Robin Hood saga and to other plays of the early modern period set during the reigns of the early Plantagenets. Carole gave me something great to think about in viewing this play as a sort of prequel to Shakespeare’s King John, which I’ll definitely be giving thought to in my continuing exploration of how early modern plays reflect the English sense of national identity. Continuing on the history theme, Glenn Schudel, an MFA candidate at the MBC program for Shakespeare in Performance and a dramaturgical intern for the OCS, provides us with a look at the “unlikely heroes” of Henry VI, Part 3: Margaret and Richard. Schudel considers their treatment within the play and the historical maligning of their characters in his examination of these two marginalized figures. His writing is witty and elegant, making for an article that is both informative and fun to read. The last scholastic contribution is my own, which I mentioned back in October, looking at Adriana (from The Comedy of Errors) and the tradition of Shakespeare’s wives. Though The Comedy of Errors, an early play, has its share of flaws and, plot-wise, is definitely among the least original of Shakespeare’s plays, you can see in it, and particularly in Adriana, the seeds that will continue to grow through the rest of his career. All three of these articles demonstrate the kind of educational insight that we prize here at the OCS, offering readers a glimpse into the intellectual intrigues surrounding these quirky plays.

For the last division of the magazine, we have the contributions from audience members and observers. Director of Education Sarah Enloe shares her experience working with A Trick to Catch the Old One with our No Kidding Shakespeare Camp for adults. The camp participants did a read-around of the play back in the summer, and Sarah talks about the insights gleaned from working through an unfamiliar text. We also have a great piece for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of the ARS, written by Rhonda Knight, Professor of English at Coker College, who spent the 2010 Ren Season observing rehearsals. She got to watch the construction of the plays in action, and her article is like a mini-documentary of the process. Finally, Cheryl and Mark Keeler, two of our regular patrons, explain why it is their family loves the ARS season so much. Their piece expresses the effervescent joy that I know so many of our audience members feel when watching Ren Season shows.

All in all, I’m ridiculously pleased with how attractive the magazine has turned out. The layout is accessible and inviting, and the pictures really capture the frenetic energy and wild creativity of the Ren Season. My favorite picture, from one of my favorite almost-leapt-out-of-my-seat-with-excitement moment from the 2010 ARS, is on page 21 — but I don’t want to ruin the surprise by telling you all what it is.

I’ll be posting again early next week, when the magazine will be available in the Playhouse box office and free-of-charge online. I’m so looking forward to putting this out so I can hear what everyone else thinks about it.

Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 3

And we’re back for the third and final session of this semester’s MLitt/MFA presentations. Four more presenters this time around:

If the Shrew Fits: Chronology, Misogyny, and Dichotomy in the Taming Plays
presented by Andrea Kelley

Andrea’s presentation opens with a video montage of various productions and adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew, illustrating Kate’s dramatic arc throughout the course of the story. The selection includes the Taylor-Burton Shrew, a puppetry show, 10 Things I Hate About You, and a recent BBC update, thus representing selections from across several decades of modern media.

Andrea then explains that this montage shows that there is no one Shrew in the cultural consciousness — and there never was. Seven different adaptations existed between 1594 and 1754. To examine the differences between these adaptations, Andrea has chosen to focus on the infamous “final speech” by Katherina. Katie Crandol and Sarah Keyes Chang help Andrea by speaking passages of this speech from different adaptations, beginning with Shakespeare’s. In the 1594 The Taming of A Shrew (anonymous), the speech calls even more strongly on biblical allusions, placing wives in context of Eve and Sarah to Adam and Abraham. The third version comes from The Tamer Tamed, a sequel, in which Petruchio’s second wife, Maria, completely up-ends Kate’s veneration of her husband. Next comes Sauny the Scot, a 1698 play by John Lacy, wherein the Kate analog, Peg, gives only a two-line speech, which Petruchio then follows up with a reference to Tamer Tamed. Neither of the works entitled The Cobbler of Preston include an analog for Kate’s speech, as both derive from the Sly frame story only. Finally, in the 1878 Booth adaptation of the 1754 Garrick play Katharine and Petruchio, the text pulls some of Shakespeare’s text directly, but abbreviated. Andrea notes that nothing in any of these plays can serve as either a description of or a prescription for all early modern marriages, as they differ in of themselves.

Andrea moves on to present several other presentations of early modern marriage: a dialogue between a good wife and a shrew, by Erasmus; a 1652 polemic by John Taylor, which suggests a song a husband may sing to a wife “if she begins to yell at him” — which seems to suggest beating a wife to death with a club; a description by Frances Boyle Shannon in 1696, which opines that it would “be now another wedding miracle” to see obedient wives; and a ballad “The Taming of a Shrew, or, the Only Way to Make a Bad Wife Good, or at Least Keep Her Quiet, Be She Bad or Good,” which posits the suggestion that men have faults, too.

Andrea concludes by stating that even the totality of all the available Shrews does not represent an accurate depiction of early modern marriage, any more than a representation of all modern sitcoms represents all modern marriages.

What to Expect When Staging the Expecting: Pregnancy in Early Modern Drama
presented by Amanda Noel Allen

Amanda’s actors begin by punctuating attitudes towards pregnancy: Linden Kueck is well-padded and resting her hand on her stomach in the universal signal for “baby on board”, David Ashton represents the patriarchy, complete with misconceptions and bad puns, Brian Falbo seems grossed out, and Rob Cantrell merely hangs his head in shame. Amanda prefaces the several issues involved with presenting pregnancy, including discomfort, the feminist trouble with women who define themselves by the ability to give birth, and the nurturing/threatening binary which tends to dominate portrayals of pregnancy. Amanda questions why so much rehearsal time is given to battles or portraying deformities (as in Richard III), but so little given to how to present pregnancy.

Amanda defines 3 criteria for the pregnant characters she chose to examine in her thesis: 1) Characters who are undoubtedly pregnant (excluding Doll Tearsheet, who may be faking), 2) Characters who are enough along that a physical representation would be expected (excluding Helena of All’s Well, as her gestation is uncertain), 3) Characters whose pregnancy is a driving force in their plot. Thus, she chooses Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Duchess in The Duchess of Malfi, and Juliet from Measure for Measure.

She begins by examining Hermione in several different productions of The Winter’s Tale, where Hermione’s pregnancy became an issue of anxiety for Leontes. Amanda addresses the notion that “the public nature of the later months of pregnancy” necessitates reactions from the other characters on stage. Falbo, Kueck, and Ashton portray a scene calling attention to Hermione’s maternity. Amanda relates Leontes’s and Polixenes’s desire to avoid upsetting a pregnant woman to early modern conceptions about what could happen to a child in utero, including that disturbing sights or thoughts could be harmful, and that pregnant women ought to moderate their emotions to keep from causing deformity in the child’s physical form or personality. Amanda then ties this idea to modern notions of how mothers should act. She argues then that the later scene, when Leontes accuses Hermione, can be informed by the idea that Hermione must be attempting to retain composure.

Amanda moves on to consider the Duchess, who attempts to hide her pregnancy, unlike Hermione, whose pregnancy is completely public. She asks what other signifiers can be called upon if the “baby bump” is hidden by loose garments, and her actors read from What to Expect When You’re Expecting to call upon other playable symptoms of pregnancy. This gives the Duchess (Ashton) something to perform, and Bosolo (Falbo) something to attempt to observe. Amanda states that she thinks “distractingly large bellies” may do the actor and audience a disservice by making it harder for the audience to focus on the actor’s words. Such choices could also become too comic or too monstrous, and thus inappropriate for certain plays.

Finally, Amanda considers Juliet. She has Kueck and Cantrell portray the scene between Juliet and the Duke, first with the expected genders (Kueck as Juliet and Cantrell as the Duke), then again with the genders reversed (Cantrell as Juliet and Ashton as the Duke). She says that pregnancy “automatically writes sex on the body,” as an outward manifestation of something a man can’t physically do. She questions whether or not a man playing a pregnant woman may actually be easier for an audience to accept than a man playing any other woman — or if such a staging is even more jarring. Amanda then notes that Juliet, unlike Hermione and the Duchess, is in no position of power, of inferior social status and unwed, and that this may inform portrayals of her. She also thinks this makes Juliet a key figure representing the silences and omissions surrounding the portrayal of pregnancy.

Amanda concludes that the issues and awkwardness in presenting pregnancy speak to a problematic societal idea about pregnancy as only important when it affects men. Why isn’t the potential for life given as much weight and consideration as the potential for death and ruin? She asserts that “actual, specific, fierce maternal love… should inspire awe, not sentiment.”

Textual Necromancy
presented by Tony TambOCSo

Tony discusses his experience reviving and amending a text of The Merry Devil of Edmonton for performance in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, combining traditional bibliography with more practical theatrical concerns. He begins by describing the history of Merry Devil, sketching out contemporary references to the play, its apparent popularity, and its multiple printings in the early modern period. It remained popular during the Restoration era, and then disappears from performance record. He states that editors up till now have ignored the application of the play to the stage when producing their editions, perhaps because of the inherent difficulties already present in editing it.

The play is already brief, shorter than Shakespeare’s shortest play, The Comedy of Errors, perhaps due to having been cut prior to preparation for publication. Tony discusses the possibility, via the competing opinions of Tiffany Stern and Andrew Gurr, that plays may or may not have been cut for touring productions. At least one scene is definitely missing, as its absence is palpable, which suggests that others may be missing as well. Tony then launches into a quick run-down of the differences between the many early quarto versions of the plays, as well as the passing ownership of the play between editions.

Tony states that he wanted to involve his actors in the editing process as much as possible. His initial compilation text used Q1 as the control, allowing actors to see some of the differences between the editions. He discusses the relationship between a director and the text, describing it as “stewardship.” Since modern directors almost always cut classical texts, and since they also cannot re-create all the conditions of early modern theater, Tony argues that every modern production of a play is thus, in some ways, an adaptation. For his production, rather than producing a sole conflated text, Tony gave his actors instructions on how to edit their texts and left them to make their decisions for themselves. Unlike in most productions, where an actor’s notes on blocking, scansion, diction, or other choices are generally ephemera, lost after the production is over, for Tony’s Merry Devil, these notes were used to help re-inform the editing of the overall text. He hopes this will have improved the quality of the text through performance practice — while admitting that no performance can completely get at “what the text says or means.”

Shakespeare’s Operas: The Development of Music and Drama on the 17th Century English Stage
presented by: Amanda Devlin Knowlton

Amanda begins by describing the origins of “opera,” both as a word and as a form of theater and discusses the early adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays into this new theatrical form. She suggests that the more supernatural plays, such as Macbeth, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lent themselves more easily to this adaptation, perhaps because of the connection between music and magical incantations.

She looks first at the music within Shakespeare’s plays themselves. Midsummer, she notes, has a surprisingly little amount of music for a comedy with such supernatural themes — yet the inclusion of music at all marks something different for Shakespeare. She refers to the lullaby in 2.1, which links the ideas of song and spellcasting, and Shannon Schultz performs a modern adaptation of the song, with the scene acted out by several others. She also examines the musical quality, if not outright melody, of many of Puck’s lines, created by the combination of his meter, rhyme schemes, and repetition. Amanda suggests that many of these themes recur years later in The Tempest.

Amanda then discusses Macbeth, which does include songs, but songs which were lifted out of Thomas Middleton’s The Witch. Her performers present “Come Away” in the context of Macbeth, including only part of the original from The Witch, as only part of it seems to fit in — but Amanda notes that many editions include the entire song. She also considers the “Black Spirits” song from later in the play, which in full describes a number of spirits and calls them by name, never otherwise mentioned in Macbeth.

Continuing the theme of supernatural worlds lending themselves easily to musical accompaniment, Amanda moves on to discussing The Tempest. The Tempest has eight songs within its text (compared to three in Midsummer and Macbeth). Ariel in particular uses songs as enchantment, and Amanda’s performers demonstrate this with the scene in which Ariel leads Ferdinand along. Amanda then compares these songs to the rowdy tunes sung by Stephano and Trinculo, suggesting that they may be ironic parodies of Ariel’s enchantments.

Amanda then discusses how the closing of the theaters allowed for the advent of secular music as a more prominent performance event. In the Restoration, English opera flourished, despite the threat of influence from Italy. Until 1710 and the arrival of Handel, opera in England remained a thoroughly English affair — and many of those composers tested their experiments on Shakespeare. Amanda discusses the first full adaptation, of The Tempest, in 1667; subsequent re-mountings of the production grew closer and closer to what we think of now as “opera.” She also discusses the popularity of Davenant’s “operatic Macbeth.” She also notes the comparative unpopularity of Midsummer during the Restoration, which was considered “insipid” by the end of the 17th century. Henry Purcell took up the play in 1692 with The Fairy Queen, which was briefly popular but which quickly disappeared from repertory.

Amanda concludes by presenting a choral piece out of The Fairy Queen.

And that’s it for thesis presentations until spring! It’s been quite a day — we’ve had a lot of excellent scholarship and engaging ideas presented. Best of luck to all the presenters in completing their theses!