Blackfriars Conference 2011 – George T. Wright Keynote Address

Greetings! I’m Charlene V. Smith and it’s 10:30 am on Day 2 of the 2011 Blackfriars Conference. George T. Wright from the University of Minnesota is giving the Keynote today, entitled “Climbing Shakespeare’s Ladder, and Other Sound Patterns.” Wright is well-known among the both the conference attendees and the graduate students at Mary Baldwin due to his seminal work Shakespeare’s Metrical Art.

After some announcements from Sarah Enloe, director of Education at the OCS, Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen takes the stage to introduce Wright. Wright is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Minnesota. Besides Shakespeare’s Metrical Art, Wright has also written Hearing the Measures: Shakespearean and Other Inflections and Poetical Craft and Authorial Design.  Dr. Ralph says that when the graduate Shakespeare program at MBC began, he really wanted to use Shakespeare’s Metrical Art as a classroom textbook. He was worried that some students, less familiar with Chaucer and poetry, might find it difficult. He says he made the mistake of using a different book, but for year two of the program Ralph “switched to the Wright/right book.”

Wright begins by noting his growing interest in ladders in Shakespeare’s text, and that years ago he noticed too many actors underplaying long verse speeches and rhetoric. They were being cheated of their force, brought down to the prose moments of the play.

Wright grew aware of growing interest amongst British actors and directors in speaking Shakespeare’s verse. Wright was interested in how verse was heard by the ear of the audience. These actors and directors were looking for guidance and rules for shared lines, pauses, enjambed versus end stopped lines, etc. Wright cares much more about the weight given to stressed and unstressed lines as they are critical to the emotional intensity of the text.

Wright notes that there are three kinds of people interested in the meter of the verse: Actors, editors, prosodists. The questions each group asks are how shall we speak the lines, how shall we print the lines, and how shall we hear the lines, respectively. Wrights says that editors and actors must print and speak the lines in a way that allows us to read and hear the lines as metrically coherent.

Wright has consulted many texts of Shakespeare’s verse and has not found much dealing with the ladder. As an example, he presents an early speech from Julius Caesar, a speech Wright says in a perfect example of a ladder.

And do you not put on your best attire?
And do you not cull out a holiday?
And do you not strew flowers in he way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.
(1.1.48-55)

The first four lines step up, and the last three lines step back down the ladder. A ladder is sequences of clauses that keep elaborating on a topic until it’s been exhausted and then the actor has to run back down.

After 1593, Shakespeare’s line really find their range. Wright says we have the plague to thank, as it caused Shakespeare to write the sonnets. With the sonnets, Shakespeare was training himself to compose verse speech in a larger four line unit. Though many sonnets are end stopped at the end of each line, usually do to the rhyme scheme. The end stopping of the lines halts the rising of the verse. There is an inherent rise and fall in the structure of the sonner. The quatrains build up and then down.

Shakespeare then used more ladders in his blank verse. Wright demonstrates Shakespeare’s powerful buildup via ladders with Richard II’s “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground,” John of Gaunt’s This England, and Henry V’s famous St. Crispin Day speeches. Shakespeare had found a new way to be seriously expressive. Why say a thing once, when saying it differently and again and again will make it more memorable?

Wright notes that the performance of these ladders is not always the same, nor is it a continuous rise. The voice likes to back track a little, or down track a little, before it continues to the next level of the speeches. Wright speaks some of Macbeth’s speech, “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, / Loyal and neutral, in a moment?” This speech goes up and down constantly, as if Macbeth doesn’t know where he wants to be.

Wright launches into Claudio’s speech from Measure for Measure, “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,” a speech Wright calls, “one of the finest of all ladder speeches.” This speech goes up for many lines, and then steps down powerfully. The imagery is as over the top as the dramatic structure of the ladder, and Wright suggests that Shakespeare intended that.

Wright notes that every actor will not perform ladders the same way, but that the device should be recognized as respecting it creates a powerful effect. Shakespeare was an extraordinary writer but also an extraordinary listener.

Wright loves the increasing attention given in recent years to the performance of verse, but the more he reads about it the more questions he has. Metrical variations add texture to Shakespeare’s verse. Readers, editors, and voice professionals need to note these variations. Not just the normal variations such as trochees, but the rarer ones such as hexameter, broken-back lines, and epic caesuras, should be considered. Shakespeare uses these irregularities more than the other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and we should wonder why.

Wright then takes a few questions from the audience. One person asks about Wright’s suggestions that we have some reservations when we hear a ladder, and wonders if that is connected to a feeling that the ladder is calculated. Wright likes the idea and the suggestions it gives for performance. Another scholar asks about evangelism and whether Wright thinks Shakespeare could have picked up some of the ladder technique from church. Wright thinks it is completely possible and beautifully quotes a poem of John Donne. Mary Baldwin professor Matt Davies mentions that the sonnets were metrically regular, and that so were the examples, there weren’t a lot of inverted feet in them, which might cause a trip in the ladder.  He asks whether regularity is essential to building a ladder. Other audience members respond to this idea and OCS actor James Keegan says he notes that sort of thing a lot in Tamburlaine. Keegan then notes that he feels contemporary actors are afraid of pitch, of singing the pitch, and has anxiety about it. Wright agrees, and says that they are afraid of going of the top. But Wright says he’d like to hear actors going over the top a bit more and notes that you can find fine examples of this, nodding to Keegan’s fine performance as Prospero in The Tempest the night before.

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Plenary Session II

Hi! I’m Julia, I’ll be liveblogging Plenary Session II from 3:15 to 4:45.

Moderator: Hank Dobin, Washington and Lee University

Time to Play
Steven Urkowitz, University of Southern Maine

Urkowitz discussed the duration of performances in Early Modern Theater. Some scholars have tried to argue that all performances adhered strictly to the “two hours traffic of our stage,” even though some early modern plays are a good deal longer than others. He mentioned that a performance of a play would include music before and dancing after, so that even if a performance was expected to be more or less the same duration, the other entertainments could be shortened or lenghthened to accomodate the difference. He also discussed script cutting as a possibility raised by scholars such as Andrew Gurr, but Urkowitz dismisses the arguments that script cutting was necessary.

The Bookend Project:
Transforming Shakespeare’s Revenge Play from Violence to Virtue in Titus Andronicus and The Tempest

Tara Bradway, St. John’s University

Bradway, artistic director of the Adirondack Shakespeare Company, discussed one interesting comparison she and her performers discovered when the same actress played Lavinia and Caliban. Early in Titus Andronicus, Lavinia fails to play within the form of the iambic pentameter line, but later in the play she breaks out of the pattern, uses initial trochees and lines witn 9 or 11 syllables, and in so doing struggles for greater agency within her own life. Caliban also uses an irregular verse pattern to assert his agency within is position of servitude. Both characters are also marked by sexual violence, and both become more eloquent through silence. Miriam Donald performed as Lavinia, Benjamin Curns as Caliban, and James Keegan as Prospero.

Laughter in Time and Space
Casey Caldwell, Mary Baldwin College

Caldwell brought together two ongoing scholarly discussions (the study of laughter in Shakespeare, and the study of sound in Shakespeare) to point out that neither discussion integrates laughter as a sound. He goes on to point out that the Blackfriars’ status as an Early Modern reconstruction gives us a tension when we come into it bringing our own time period, as there is a tension between our time and the time to which the Blackfriars belongs. Laughter is a way of imposing our own imminence onto our surroundings, but we are not laughing at the space. In the same way, a sleeping Bottom (performed by Benjamin Curns) awakes from his dream and chooses to remain imminent by re-formating his perception of his experience and using it to commission a work of art.

Remember the Porter:
Knock-Knock Jokes, Tragedy, and Other Unfunny Things

Chris Barrett, Harvard University

Barrett discussed the Porter’s scene as an extended knock-knock joke; the first, she says, in the English language. The porter, as the keeper of the threshold, has no trouble playing both the host and the interrupter in the joke. A knock-knock joke has a formula that suggests not only fear, but a disruption of the rules of hospitality: the guest is an uncouth interrupter and the joke is always on the host. Implied is a laughing forgiveness for the transgression — thus pity and fear are integral to the knock-knock joke and also, as it happens, to tragedy.

Performing Verse/Prose Transitions
James Loehlin, The University of Texas at Austin

Loehlin presented several instances of transitions between verse and prose in Shakespeare, using examples from Hamlet and As You Like It, performed by Shakespeare at Winedale actors Isto Barton, Sonia Desai, and Kelsi Tyler. He demonstrated that when a character switches from verse to prose, the other characters onstage have an opportunity to confirm or deny that transformation. He also discussed lines within prose scenes that sound and scan like verse, and concluded that characters can manipulate verse/prose transitions to rhetorical effect.

Blackfriars Conference 2011 – Welcome and Stephen Booth Keynote

Greetings to all — The 6th Blackfriars Conference has officially begun! A team of OCS employees and MBC MLitt/MFA graduate students will be live-blogging throughout the week, so that those of you who couldn’t be here to join us can still get a little taste of the scholarship and other exciting events. Our livebloggers for the week are: Christina Sayer Grey, the OCS’s Marketing Associate, graduate students Charlene Smith, Julia Nelson, and Deborah Streusand, and me, Cass Morris, the OCS’s Academic Resources Manager.

9:45 am – Welcome Address
The welcome opens with Ralph Alan Cohen introducing Amy Wratchford, the OCS’s managing director, Paul Menzer, director of the MLitt/MFA graduate program, Dean Catharine O’Connell from Mary Baldwin College, Steven Owen, Staunton City Manager, and OCS Director of Education Sarah Enloe.
Sarah and Ralph give everyone an overview of their packet materials, both those essentials of the conference, such as maps, nametags, schedules, and directories, and the fun bits: the Truancy Award (given to the person who spends more time exploring Staunton than actually attending conference events) and the swag, including a thermos and water bottle (so that the conference can “go green” and not offer plastic or styrafoam cups for water and coffee).
Ralph comments about the special late-night shows, 11pm performances of original (but Shakespeare-related) works. Ralph then warns everyone about the bear. It’s a bit infamous at our conference that, if your paper runs over time, you will have to exit, pursued by a bear. A thunder sheet gives presenters a 2-minute warning, and Sarah lets the bear out of the cage so that everyone can see what they’ll be baiting if they go on for too long.
Ralph calls attention to a few changes and additions to the program. In celebration of our partnership with Washington and Lee, who are now hosting the OCS archives, we will be holding a champagne reception at 4:45pm, immediately following the last paper session.
Farah Karim-Cooper and Neil Constable from Shakespeare’s Globe in London then take the stage to discuss their plans to build a new indoor theatre in London. Farah explains the history of the research behind their plans — that the architectural designs were originally thought to be created by Inigo Jones in 1616, but that later research revealed them to be a later creation. As a result, the Globe has decided to construct an archetype of Jacobean theatres, rather than re-creating one specific building. Neil then walks the audience through a short Powerpoint presentation which conveys the visual plans for the indoor theatre. He discusses the planned timeline for project completion, estimating that by the fall of 2013, the indoor theatre will be open and in use, allowing the Globe to perform 52 weeks a year — which will make the Globe and the American Shakespeare Center the only two Shakespeare theatres in the world who run shows continuously.
Ralph thanks everyone at the Globe for their support not only for the Blackfriars Playhouse but for their ongoing support of our goals to build Globe II, a re-creation of the 1614 Globe.
Ralph then moves into introducing Stephen Booth, Professor emeritus of English literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Booth is the author of On the Value of Hamlet; Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Edited with Analytic Commentary; King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy, and Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson’s Epitaphs on His Children, and Twelfth Night. Ralph shares some anecdotes about working with Stephen over the years, then introduces him by saying, “Today Stephen is going to share with us some things about audience that he already knows and that we have never thought about.”
10:30am – Stephen Booth Keynote: “Shakespeare vs the Audience”, or, “The Audience as Lady Anne”
“You will notice, with pleasure, how briefly the previous speakers have spoken. That is all over.” Stephen then absconds with two cushions from the gallant stools, to further elevate his reading podium. Booth claims that we should look at Richard III as the greatest author analog in Shakespeare, relating Shakespeare’s joy in “rhetoric over circumstance” to Richard III’s delight in the rhetorical power to woo Lady Anne. He then moves on to the odd abortive ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost and to The Tempest, “Shakespeare’s greatest success in leading the audience to increasingly improbably responses”. Prospero, he says, is a failure both as a character (“he bores us”) and as a leader, who he characterizes as “casually unjust”. Booth argues that audiences come away with an impression of Prospero that reflects his final generosity, not his moment-to-moment cruelties. Similarly, audiences at the end of Romeo and Juliet feel they have seen the play the prologue promised, when the play itself undercuts much of the outline. The Winter’s Tale he categorizes as another instance of inappropriate responses to circumstances, with giant logic holes that the audience blithely ignores, and with characters such as Autolycus, “who seems to be there just to see if the play can get away with it”.
Not all of Shakespeare’s plays, however, achieve such a success of theatre over context, nor are they always consistent within a play. Booth relates Shakespeare’s overconfidence with language again to Richard III, whose triumph in his second wooing scene is less justified than his first. He then provides a list of plays where the contextual misalignments tempt the audience to dismiss or question circumstances: Richard III ends with Henry of Richmond, Macbeth with the bloodless Malcolm. In Much Ado about Nothing, “the unnecessary detail that asks audience’s minds to accommodate the presence of two people in Hero’s window who have no business in Hero’s bedchamber” and the subsequent request that they believe this would cause Claudio to believe Hero unfaithful, Booth says strains credulity. He moves next to the Chorus in Henry V, who asserts a confidence in the King that the play itself undercuts. In Hamlet, audiences agree with the Ghost for chastising Hamlet’s delay, even though both Ghost and audience know that Polonius’s corpse is right there and that the Ghost’s pointed language imitates the weapon Hamlet used. In Macbeth, audiences “ignore the comic klutz that Macbeth is” when his superstitions lead him to unnecessary murders (when warned against Banquo’s children, he kills Macduff’s). In King Lear, the “wicked” sisters Goneril and Regan give voice to what the audience must think about a father and a king overconfident in his own omnipotence, yet forty minutes later, the audience believes them as pure and entirely sympathetic victims. “Shakespeare manipulates audiences into unlikely acquiescence.” Julius Caesar makes the relation very plain through its association of the audience with the plebeian mob.
Booth warns that he may be leaving us with the impression Shakespeare felt the same contempt for audiences that Richard III felt for Lady Anne and Lady Elizabeth. He claims that he had no intention of giving us that impression when he began the paper, but now feels sure that he has, and asks us to “consider the evidence.”
The address ends early enough that we can open for questions. One question asks if the audiences might be seen to derive pleasure from being insulted by Shakespeare, as Groucho Marx became famous and adored for insulting audiences. Booth responds that he thinks the critical importance is that intelligent audiences like being insulted if they know they’re being insulted, whereas Shakespeare, he believes, “doesn’t offer a smirk” of knowledge at them. Another question asks if Booth believes Shakespeare gets us to consent to his treatment; Booth agrees, yes, he does. Another scholar comments that “we’re not really rationalists” when we’re in the audience. She brings up Measure for Measure, where the Duke manipulates Isabella, claiming that he’ll offer her comforts when he does nothing of the kind. She asks, “Where is the emotion?” and wonders if it’s up to the actors either to connect with the audience or to make them feel the disconnect.

Wandering through Wordles

As one of the activities in our Study Guides, we ask students to examine closely Shakespeare’s vocabulary — because what they’ll discover is that it actually isn’t as alien as they fear. Shakespeare’s language is their language, not antiquated, not Old English, not in need of translation. One of the ways we introduce this idea to students, in our Study Guides as well as in workshops and lectures, is through the Wordle. The Wordle program allows you to create a visual representation of a speech, a scene, or even an entire play, if you’re so inclined. The more times a word appears in the text, the larger that word will be relative to others on the page. Wordle automatically excludes articles and most pronouns (though it doesn’t recognize “thou” as a pronoun). Wordles help to show students that Shakespeare’s language is not really that far removed from their own — typically students are hard-pressed to find unfamiliar words in the bunch, apart from character or place names. What makes Shakespeare “difficult” is not the vocabulary, but rather the syntax and word order, the way he constructs his ideas, and that is almost always to a purpose (which we explore further in the rhetoric section of the Study Guides). Wordles can also provide an insight into other aspects of the language, especially if you look at a single speech or a smaller portion of a scene. They might point to a dominating concept or idea. They might tell you what characters are the focus of the selection. They can even impart a sense of mood, based on the vocabulary — on whether there are a lot of names, or an abundance of informal pronouns, or almost entirely active verbs.

To help teachers with this idea, we created Wordles for the first 100 lines of each of the plays I’m building a guide for this year. So far, I’ve taken a good, close look at Julius Caesar, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Henry V. When preparing the text for conversion, I edited out the speech prefixes and stage directions, so that the Wordle would include only those words that the audience hears. I was surprised, looking at some of them, to see what that exercise told me about the first five minutes of these plays. In many cases, it’s easy to see just what the focus of the scene is — who’s important, what they’re talking about, what issues are at stake. These Wordles crystallize the ways in which Shakespeare introduces the audience to the world he’s bringing them into.

First: Julius Caesar, which opens with two tribunes, Flavius and Marcellus, attempting to scatter plebeians who have gathered to watch Caesar’s triumphal parade. The Wordle gives a clue as to the nature of the struggle in the scene:

The two largest words are “thou” and “sir” — indicating, just at a glance, that the conversational partners are not of equal social status. “Sir” is a term of respect (even if it might be sarcastically delivered), and “thou” indicates informality, either to an intimate or an inferior. The juxtaposition with “sir” would make me think, even if I didn’t know who the characters were, that this “thou” marks a status distinction, not intimacy. The next biggest word is “Caesar” — unsurprising, since even though he does not have the bulk of the play’s lines, he is the focus of the play’s action. Everything that happens in it derives from his actions, his importance, his dominance over Rome. The audience hears his names many times before he even appears on the stage.

Next, in Hamlet, the largest words give a fairly good indication of the mood of the opening scene:

Horatio is the highest-ranking person in the first scene, but, unlike with Caesar, the repetition of his name does not directly reflect his status or relative importance. Instead, it stems from Barnardo and Marcellus calling on him to interact with the Ghost, pushing him forward as the earthly representative to their supernatural visitor (an element I’ve always found highly humorous). Another interesting thing to do with this Wordle is to go through and pick out all the words related to some sort of sensory perception: look, hear, speak, eyes, appear, etc. Deprived of sight in this dark scene, the characters nonetheless seem obsessed with seeing and visions — but they also compensate for the impairment of one sense by relying heavily on another. This scene is also full of imperatives, as the Wordle shows — all of the characters issue commands. Taken together, these clues provide insight into the pace and mood of the first scene.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Wordle for the first 100 lines reveals that the issues at stake are all about people and how they relate to each other:

Several names feature prominently: Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia — and many of the other large words describe relationships: father, child, wed, marry, love. Right from the start, this play is a tangled mess of who relates to whom (and who would like to). I’m also intrigued by the relatively large size of the word “may” — a word that could mean so many things. In this scene, I believe it refers both to permission and to possibility — what Hermia may do, as allowed by her father, the duke, and Athenian law, and what may happen in the future, whether she obeys those rulings or not.

The Henry V Wordle, by contrast, is interesting to me not for what it reveals about the play, but for what it conceals:

This is the only Wordle out of the set I’ve been working with where I wouldn’t immediately know which play it’s from just by glancing at it. No names feature prominently — a stark contrast to the three previous examples. Still, the Wordle does give you a sense of the matter at hand through the two larges words: “king” and “like.” The first 100 lines of Henry V covers both the Chorus’s prologue and about 60-odd lines of the opening conversation between the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely. Both the prologue and the dialogue concern themselves with one main topic: what is the king like? What did he used to be like, and what is he like now? Both the Chorus and the Bishops offer the audience any number of analogies and examples with florid vocabulary — the reason why there seem to be fewer larger words here than in the other Wordles. The vocabulary of the first 100 lines of Henry V is more diverse than in the other plays I’ve looked at so far.

Wordles aren’t a catch-all. They won’t always cut straight to the matter or offer particularly valuable insights, and they certainly shouldn’t become a substitute for actually studying the lines of the play and looking at the words in context. They can, however, be a useful supplementary tool, providing avenues of creative exploration. For this reason, we recommend them to teachers, to help combat ShakesFear in their students — and I recommend them as an interesting graphical toy to any readers who are always looking for new ways to play around with the text.