"You know it is the feast of Lupercal": February Traditions Then and Now

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opens on a holiday — but a holiday no one in Shakespeare’s England any longer celebrated. Unlike Twelfth Night, Shrove Tuesday, Whitsuntide, or any other liturgical holiday of the Christian calendar, the Lupercalia was something no one in Shakespeare’s audiences would have had personal experience with, and we are even further removed from it today. But what correlations does it have to Tudor-era traditions and to our modern late-winter festivities? More than you might immediately guess.

Abbi Hawk, Gregory Jon Phelps, and Benjamin Curns
in Julius Caesar, 2013. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

So what is this strange Roman festival? Plutarch discusses the Lupercalia, held February 13th-15th, in his “Life of Romulus,” the first of his Twelve Lives. He describes it there as the Romans celebrated it early in the Republic, as a feast of purification, but also as a memorial to the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus after their exposure in the wilderness. He gives the following description of the ceremonies:

… the priests slaughter goats, and then, after two youths of noble birth have been brought to them, some of them touch their foreheads with a bloody knife, and others wipe the stain off at once with wool dipped in milk. The youths must laugh after their foreheads are wiped. After this they cut the goats’ skins into strips and run about, with nothing on but a girdle, striking all who meet them with the thongs, and young married women do not try to avoid their blows, fancying that they promote conception and easy child-birth. …

A certain Butas, who wrote fabulous explanations of Roman customs in elegiac verse, says that Romulus and Remus, after their victory over Amulius, ran exultantly to the spot where, when they were babes, the she-wolf gave them suck, and that the festival is conducted in imitation of this action, and that the two youths of noble birth run “Smiting all those whom they meet, as once with brandished weapons, Down from Alba’s heights, Remus and Romulus ran.” And that the bloody sword is applied to their foreheads as a symbol of the peril and slaughter of that day, while the cleansing of their foreheads with milk is in remembrance of the nourishment which the babes received. But Caius Acilius writes that before the founding of the city Romulus and his brother once lost their flocks, and after praying to Faunus, ran forth in quest of them naked, that they might not be impeded by sweat; and that this is the reason why the Luperci run about naked. 

The Lupercalia had, by Caesar’s time, also grown to incorporate an earlier festival called the Februalia, which was more strictly a purification ritual having to do, it seems, with spring cleaning and washing. The name of the month February (Februarius to the Romans) derives from this holiday. Perhaps in recognition of the connection, the strips of goat flesh used during the Lupercal were called februa. The Lupercalia was so popular that it hung on as a tradition in Rome long after the advent of Christianity. In 494 CE, the Pope finally took measures to halt the pagan practice (telling the wealthy men of Rome that they should go run naked in the streets themselves if they liked the holiday so much), transforming the Lupercalia into the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary — better known as Candlemas.

Shakespeare gives a fairly faithful rendition of the Lupercalia in Julius Caesar. Antony enters “for the course” (though presumably, in 1599, not naked or clad only in a goatskin loincloth — but if anyone knows of a production of the show that has had Antony appear in the historically-accurate altogether, I have a purely intellectual curiosity about such a staging). Caesar himself gives the audience a brief run-down of the ritual and its significance to the Roman populace:

CAESAR
[to Calphurnia]
Stand you directly in Antonio’s way,
When he doth run his course. Antonio.

ANTONY
Caesar, my lord?

CAESAR
Forget not, in your speed, Antonio,
To touch Calphurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

Though most of the events of the day occur off-stage, the narration of them closely resembles what Plutarch has to say about them. Antony, though consul at the time, did run with the luperci priests on that day (and earned criticism from the conservatives for what they saw as action too undignified for his rank). Shakespeare’s greatest aberration is that he conflates several days into one, merging the 44 BCE Lupercalia together with a series of triumphs that Caesar celebrated following his defeat of Pompey and Cato. The incidents involving Murellus and Flavius un-decorating Caesar’s statues and involving Antony attempting to give Caesar a crown both occurred on the Lupercalia of 44 BCE, a month before Caesar’s assassination. This was also the first day that he wore the purple toga of the Dictator-for-Life in public, a visible signal of his power that would have been unmistakable and tremendously significant for the Romans. By conflating this day with his triumphs — during which a Roman general was literally considered a god on earth — Shakespeare presents us at the top of the play with an image of Caesar at his utmost pinnacle, possessing more power and authority than any Roman man before him ever had.

The Capitoline Wolf, honoree of the Lupercalia

As with most cultural transmission, historians have trouble drawing any direct links between the Lupercalia and other social and religious  holidays, but there are a cluster of similarly-timed, similarly-themed festivals at this time of year. St. Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Candlemas, Imbolc, and even Groundhog Day all speak in some way to rebirth and to the turning of the year, as the first hints of spring begin showing themselves (at least to those of us in temperate climes of the northern hemisphere). The sacred animal attached to the holiday was a goat for the Romans, a lamb for the Britons, a badger or a bear for the Teutons, and a groundhog for modern Americans. Each, in some way, either deals with weather prognostication or with ideas of nourishing milk and fertility (and some, like the lambs, cover both).

There is an interesting juxtaposition of the themes of purification and the themes of mating and fertility present in the various holidays celebrated at this time of year. The Lupercalia itself, thanks to the melding of traditions from the Februalia, mixed cleansing aspects and the sweeping of ashes with the ideas of conception and safe childbirth. The Celtic and Teutonic festivals of Imbolc all relate to the earth’s renewed fertility at this time of year, as visible by the lambing of ewes and the mating rituals of various animals. Though Candlemas, an answer to the Lupercalia, focuses on purification, another Christian holiday, St. Valentine’s Day, focused initially on marriage and now on love of all kinds (read about its history and development on the Intern Blog). St. Valentine’s also took on some of the connotations of mating in the animal world. As Shakespeare tells us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, St. Valentine’s is traditionally when “woodbirds begin to couple.” Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, which together mark the dualism of excess and indulgence contrasted to sobriety and spiritual purifying, often fall during this time of year as well, or else fairly early in March — and the incorporation of ashes into a religious purification ritual is something that Ash Wednesday shares with the Februalia.

The major instigation behind all of these holidays seems to be things, whether human or animal, floral or vegetable, natural or spiritual, in potential, not yet come to the full flourishing of the spring that we’ll celebrate in March and April with holidays like Easter, Ostara, Earth Day, and Arbor Day. These celebrations focus more on mating and pregnancy, less on birth (or rebirth). We clear away the snow and dead earth in preparation for flower buds and fresh plantings. Warmth and growth aren’t quite back yet — but we know they’re coming, and that is itself cause for merriment.

Whether or not any of these myriad traditions inherit from each other, there certainly seems to be something in the air at this time of year that affects the bent of human thoughts. Perhaps it’s just that, by mid-February, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the buzz of Christmas has long since worn off and the grey of winter seems too dreary to endure, so we’re all eager to hurry it on its way. Whether you’re sending Valentines this week, smudging ashes on your forehead, sweeping the dust out of your home, or looking forward to swapping out winter wools for spring sundresses, you’ll be part of traditions that stretch back not just hundreds but thousands of years.

Now, if you feel the best way to get in touch with your cultural ancestry this week is to run naked through the streets, it’s certainly not my place to judge (though your neighbors and local police department may feel differently). But, if you’d like to celebrate less ostentatiously (and with less potential for arrest, frostbite, or potentially-damning Youtube videos), come to the Blackfriars Playhouse this week to see Julius Caesar or one of the other shows of the Actors’ Renaissance Season.

Cakes and Ale: Christmastide and Twelfth Night in Early Modern England

While modern culture in the West has extended the holiday season backwards to Thanksgiving (and, at least judging by many big box retailers, all the way to November 1st), our medieval and early modern ancestors instead pushed the celebration later, into January. The four weeks before Christmas, during which we now haul out the holly and deck the halls, were the season of Advent, distinct from Christmas and bearing a rather less celebratory feel. Advent was a time of preparation — specifically, preparation for the Second Coming of Christ, while thinking about his first visit to the earth. Most of December, therefore, was liturgically a time for spiritual contemplation and solemnity. Fridays and Saturdays during Advent were times of fasting and abstinence, and some traditions extended this self-denial to the entire season. The Christmas season did not properly begin until Christmas Eve, and it culminated in Epiphany Eve, or Twelfth Night.

The Twelve Days of Christmas that we all know from the carol were originally all feast days belonging to specific saints, beginning with the Feast of St. Stephen (think of Good King Wenceslas going out to visit the poor) on December 26th. Other honorees during this time included St. John the Evangelist, St. Sylvester, an early pope, and, pertinent for enthusiasts of English history, St. Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom in 1170 (as OCS patrons who saw The Lion in Winter this past fall may remember) was considered such a horror that ecclesiastical authorities kept the commemoration of his death on the day it took place, rather than moving it outside of Christmastide, as would have been common practice. Other days commemorated Jesus’s circumcision and naming, which, while not as obviously celebratory, are interesting because they point toward the idea of Jesus as a living human, subject to the same customs as other Jewish males of his era. Prayer during Christmastide was joyful rather than somber, and the two weeks from Christmas Eve to Epiphany Eve were a time for rest from labor, for feasting, and for revelry. Gift exchange took place either on New Year’s Day or on Epiphany itself, mimicking the visitation of the myrrh-, frankincense-, and gold-bearing Magi.

Most of Twelfth Night’s traditions were food-and-drink-related, with fruits, cakes, and wassail particularly popular gastronomical focuses. January 5th was the day to eat and drink everything that had been prepared during the Christmastide season, as well as the last day to enjoy the festive decorations. The tradition of taking down Christmas decorations on Epiphany, January 6th, persisted into colonial America, and many still observe it to the modern day, considering it unlucky to leave decorations up any longer. Some of the traditions of Twelfth Night have, over the centuries, drifted into other holidays. Several early modern sources describe the baking of a Twelfth Night cake with a bean, a pea, or a penny inside of it. Whoever found the errant item in his slice would be proclaimed king for the day — a tradition with roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, but which has since become attached instead to Mardi Gras celebrations on the eve of Lent. In some countries, the season of Epiphany was also the season of Carnival, which may explain the tradition’s unmooring from Twelfth Night and getting stuck onto Mardi Gras instead. The extension of celebrations throughout the winter also makes logical sense for agricultural societies, where there was less work to do in the cold, barren months, and when people may have had greater need for good cheer.

Stephanie Holladay Earl as
Olivia in 
Twelfth Night.
Photo by Michael Bailey.

So what does any of this have to do with Shakespeare’s play? Certainly a production could choose to set Twelfth Night during Twelfth Night, but nothing in the play necessitates that association. No dialogue refers to the holiday or gives any indication of the season, and the secondary title, What You Will, seems more appropriate both for the content of the play and as a sly bawdy joke in the same style as the other “festive” comedies, Much Ado about Nothing and As You Like It. The title might indicate that the Chamberlain’s Men originally performed the play on Twelfth Night, but the earliest recorded performance isn’t until Candlemas, February 1st, 1602. Was there an earlier performance that went unrecorded? Perhaps, and plays were certainly popular entertainment at court during Christmastide – but we don’t know for sure. There are a few thematic similarities between the events of the play and the traditions of the holiday, but you have to squint and tilt your head a little sideways to see them. Toby and Andrew’s cheerful inebriation would certainly fit with Christmastide celebrations, but it hardly seems a holiday-only indulgence for them. Viola’s cross-dressing and Malvolio’s determination to turn from steward to lord might be seen as reflecting the up-ending of social order that attended some Christmastide traditions such as the bean-finding or the Feast of Fools, but the connection is tenuous, particularly given those themes’ prevalence in other plays as well. The criticism of Malvolio’s revel-hating ways (“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”) may bear some relevance to the Protestant tendency to pull away from the festivals that they saw as tainted by Catholic idolatry, but that religious trend did not become pronounced for a few more decades, peaking under the Commonwealth’s outright banning of the Christmas holidays, and so it seems a more general indictment of Puritan hypocrisy. The threads of connection may be present, but they’re definitely frayed. If nothing else, though, the title of Twelfth Night has helped to keep the idea of the holiday more prominently in the public consciousness than it might otherwise be.

At the OCS, we carry the spirit of celebration with us year-round, with performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse 52 weeks a year — Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany all included. Our Holiday Season shows, A Christmas Carol, The Santaland Diaries, and The Twelve Dates of Christmas continue through December 28th, and on the last weekend of the year, you can catch our Tempt Me Further shows before they head back out on the spring leg of the tour: Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Duchess of Malfi, and, of course, Twelfth Night. Then join us January 4th as we open our 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Season with Julius Caesar. Whatever and however you celebrate, we at the OCS hope that you have a lovely holiday season. Cheers!

Adventures in Dramaturgy: The Packet

I recently completed one of my Big Projects for the year, and it was one that was a little new and different for me — a dramaturgy packet for use in the Actors’ Renaissance Season production of Julius CaesarI was excited to tackle it, since Caesar is a pet favorite play of mine. I have a strong classical background in addition to my early modern training, which made dramaturging this show a natural fit for me. The interpersonal contortions of loyalty that surround the assassination of Julius Caesar make this period of classical history particularly fOCSinating. Revisiting my old Roman buddies was (as anyone who passed my desk while I was working on the project could attest) a giddy delight for me. 

The primary challenge with creating packet for the ARS is figuring out how much of which information to present. Everything needs to be streamlined for maximum efficiency and useful for the actors — playable information, not details that have no bearing on the production.
So, however interesting I may find the nuances of the Roman political system or maps of the city in the first century BCE, those are not things that are as likely to help the actors. On the other hand, a brief explanation of the cursus honorum, the sequence of term-limited political offices a Roman man would aspire to hold, can provide helpful information about status in the same way that the more familiar ranks of English nobility can, if I present it in the right way. I settled on an annotated diagram (right, original from vroma.org), depicting not only the levels of offices, but which characters hold which offices at the time of the play, and which offices they’ve held before. Hopefully this will help to translate the relative power dynamics into terms that the actors can use on stage. Relationships are also important; several actors have mentioned in conversation or in podcasts that knowing who was related to whom helped during the Henry VI plays, so I created a family tree for the important members of the Roman elite. As it turns out, nearly all the major figures in Julius Caesar are connected through blood or marriage as well as politically, causing Sarah to refer to the play as “really the world’s worst family reunion.”

There are also ways in which Julius Caesar gives me a little more leeway to provide historical information than some other plays might, because Shakespeare adheres more nearly to his sources (mostly Plutarch) here than he does almost anywhere else. Compared to his English histories, Julius Caesar is practically a documentary. For that reason, I’ve done a lot with those original sources, pointing out scenes and lines that seem to come straight out of Plutarch or Appian, but I’ve also included some of the corollary information that doesn’t make it directly into the play, but might still be helpful — like popular perceptions of Cassius’s character or the chaos of the assassination scene. Consider this description from Plutarch’s Life of Brutus:

As Caesar entered, the senate rose in his honour, but as soon as he was seated the conspirators surrounded him in a body, putting forward Tullius Cimber of their number with a plea in behalf of his brother, who was in exile. The others all joined in his plea, and clasping Caesar’s hands, kissed his breast and his head. At first, Caesar merely rejected their pleas, and then, when they would not desist, tried to free himself from them by force. At this, Tullius tore Caesar’s robe from his shoulders with both hands, and COCSa, who stood behind him, drew his dagger and gave him the first stab, not a deep one, near the shoulder. Caesar caught the handle of the dagger and cried out loudly in Latin: “Impious COCSa, what doest thou?” Then COCSa, addressing his brother in Greek, bade him come to his aid. And now Caesar had received many blows and was looking about and seeking to force his way through his assailants, when he saw Brutus setting upon him with drawn dagger. At this, he dropped the hand of COCSa which he had seized, covered his head with his robe, and resigned himself to the dagger-strokes. The conspirators, crowding eagerly about the body, and plying their many daggers, wounded one another, so that Brutus also got a wound in the hand as he sought to take part in the murder, and all were covered with blood.

Compare that to 3.1 of Julius Caesar:

CAESAR
Are we all ready? What is now amiss
That Caesar and his senate must redress?
METELLUS CIMBER
Most high, most mighty, and most puissant Caesar,
Metellus Cimber throws before thy seat
An humble heart,–
CAESAR
I must prevent thee, Cimber.
These couchings and these lowly courtesies
Might fire the blood of ordinary men,
And turn pre-ordinance and first decree
Into the law of children. Be not fond,
Thy brother by decree is banished:
If thou dost bend and pray and fawn for him,
I spurn thee like a cur out of my way.
Know, Caesar doth not wrong, nor without cause
Will he be satisfied.
METELLUS CIMBER
Is there no voice more worthy than my own
To sound more sweetly in great Caesar’s ear
For the repealing of my banish’d brother?
BRUTUS
I kiss thy hand, but not in flattery, Caesar;
Desiring thee that Publius Cimber may
Have an immediate freedom of repeal.
CAESAR
What, Brutus?
CASSIUS
Pardon, Caesar; Caesar, pardon:
As low as to thy foot doth Cassius fall,
To beg enfranchisement for Publius Cimber.
CAESAR
I could be well moved, if I were as you:
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me:
But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine,
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,
Let me a little show it, even in this;
That I was constant Cimber should be banish’d,
And constant do remain to keep him so.
CINNA
O Caesar,–
CAESAR
Hence; wilt thou lift up Olympus?
DECIUS
Great Caesar,–
CAESAR
Doth not Brutus bootless kneel?
COCSA
Speak, hands for me.
           They stab CAESAR.
CAESAR
Et Tu Brute? ———– Then fall, Caesar.

This comparison shows how close Shakespeare’s version of the scene is to the historical record, but also how much he leaves to the actors to choreograph. Would his original company have been familiar enough with Plutarch’s version of events (and Appian’s, and Suetonius’s, and Nicolaus of DamOCSus’s) to fill in the gaps? I don’t know. It’s as possible that they did as that they didn’t. Our actors may find some details helpful or inspirational but others irrelevant or impractical. My job is just to present the information so that they can make those choices — and I know I can’t wait to see how they handle this moment.

Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he still takes some liberties. Between 3.3 (Cinna the Poet) and 4.1 (the Second Triumvirate in action), he jumps several years and an entire war that occurred as Antony and Octavius struggled for control of Caesar’s legacy. Why does Shakespeare do this? I’m not sure. It certainly helps to focus the action more on Brutus and Cassius, augmenting the idea that this is really Brutus’s tragedy, not Caesar’s, and it blunts some of the political complexities of the situation. So how much do the actors need to know about what happens during that interlude? I’ve tried to summarize as succinctly as possible, including links to the (vast wealth of) information in Plutarch, should any of the key players involved in those dynamics be interested in exploring that further. Mostly what they need to know, however, is that Antony and Octavius are only tenuous allies, with plenty of bad blood already between them.

Another problem with any history play is how much background information to give on events that occur before the play begins. How much do the actors need to know about Caesar’s conquests or his war with Pompey? By the time the play opens, after all, Caesar has already subjugated Gaul and Pompey is already dead. Pompey never appears on stage, even as a corpse, but many characters do refer to him, from the first scene onward. Murellus berates the commoners for cheering the man who “comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood” when previously they had cheered Pompey with equal fervor. The conspirators and Antony clearly tell us that Caesar dies in Pompey’s Theatre, at the feet of Pompey’s statue, even though no statue would exist on a bare stage like that of Shakespeare’s Globe or our Blackfriars Playhouse. These details, I think, mean that Pompey has some lingering, ghost-like relevance in the play — relevance that Shakespeare’s actors and audiences would likely have been more aware of, since the Roman greats were more common reading then than they are today. Similarly, some information on Caesar’s conquests may help to explain why he was such a big deal, why the conspirators hated him so much, and whose allegiances shifted away from Caesar over time. But, again, I don’t want to overload with details that really have no bearing on the events of the play — so summary again becomes important.

After determining what information I wanted to provide, I had to figure out how to present it in a way that maximized its usefulness for the troupe. After a few introductory sections, the bulk of the guide is a scene-by-scene breakdown of questions that the play raises. The lovely Miriam Burrows furnished me with the idea to create a secondary table of contents, listing information by character rather than by topic. I also listed the relevant characters at the top of each page in the scene breakdown, and the bibliography includes annotations for each character. I hope that this system of cross-referencing will help the actors get to the information they need quickly, without bogging them down in information that has no direct relevance for them.

Some dramaturgy packets, especially if they need to help design teams as well as actors, will include extensive image galleries with information about costumes, settings, character appearances, and previous productions of the play. These details have less relevance at the OCS, particularly in a Ren Season production. While I did include a short image gallery in the packet itself, I decided to place the bulk of visual information on a Pinterest board. This not only cuts down on the length and file size of the packet, it also allows me a little more freedom with what I include: original Roman frescos, sculptures, and mosaics; pictures of modern re-enactors; maps and landscapes; and a few screencaps from HBO’s Rome (because I just can’t help myself). Some of the actors may not be interested in this sort of visual inspiration, but it may help others, especially when they go to pull costumes. Even if they don’t go the traditional toga-route, the colors and fabrics may still help them when they start thinking about what clothes will best communicate their characters to the audience.

Rehearsals for Julius Caesar start on New Year’s Day, so my next Adventure in Dramaturgy will be sitting in the room while the actors work, ready to answer any questions that may come up on the fly. I’m already planning out ways to pre-load my dashboard with the major sources and pertinent links in order to maximize my usefulness to our troupe. Check back in January for my thoughts about sitting in on rehearsals, and be sure to come see Julius Caesar and the other shows in our always-exciting Actors’ Renaissance Season.

"I am not what I am": Shakespeare and Gender Fluidity

The thing about being active in social media, in fandoms, on the Internet in general is that it exposes you to a broader spectrum of humanity than most people encounter on a day-to-day basis — and it means that a lot of minority groups get greater exposure on the Internet than they do elsewhere. A lifelong citizen of the web, I’m always learning new things from new groups of people. Because I’m politically interested and active, a lot of the things I learn have to do with civil rights, and because of the nature of current politics, a lot of those rights have to do with sexual attraction and gender equality, in some way or another. I’ve noticed a trend, in the past few years, of increasing awareness of people who do not conform to the socially projected binary system: people who are neither male nor female, but somewhere in between; people who are not cisgendered, whose mental, emotional, psychological identities don’t match with their biological organs; people who are neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but bi-, or pan-, or asexual, or who are still figuring that out. It’s a big wide world out there, and there are all kinds of people in it — but just because we didn’t hear as much about these people before doesn’t mean they suddenly started existing in the past few years. These ideas have been around for centuries, even millennia — and Shakespeare had something to say about them, albeit in a different language than we use today.

Five years ago, I don’t know that it would ever have occurred to me to use the terms “gender fluidity” or “sliding scale of human sexuality” (and I hadn’t even heard the term “cisgendered,” which is still new enough that it has yet to make it into the OED) — particularly not in a Study Guide aimed for teachers of high school and college students. And yet, in an activity I’ve been preparing for the Twelfth Night Study Guide, I’ve done just that. Viola gives me a great in — and so does Antonio, and so does Olivia, so do Orsino and Sebastian. In “Perspectives: Gender and Behavior,” I ask teachers to lead their students through an exploration of the gender dynamics in the play. The activities involve looking at the stereotypical presentations of male and female, both in appearance and behavior, examining how Shakespeare invokes these markers in the plays with cross-dressing heroines, and then exploring how the gender confusion creates emotional conflict . As with all our Study Guides, the main focus of the activity is practical — how do we stage this? How do costumes affect the presentation? How can an actor play against his or her biological gender or usual presentation of gender? But, as this is the Perspectives section, I also take a moment to broaden the scope — to explore the social issues the play raises, particularly in modern performance, and how those issues may resonate in students’ lives. And so part of the activity looks like this:

  • Give your students Handout #5A: Suit Me Like a Man. This handout provides the text of the scenes from five Shakespeare plays where the heroine makes the decision to dress as a man:
  • Discuss:
    • What do Shakespeare’s cross-dressing heroines point to as the markers of mOCSulinity versus femininity?
    • What information does Shakespeare convey about how his (male) actors playing female characters will present mOCSulinity?
    • All of these heroines have help in assuming their disguises. Julia and Portia ask their waiting-women; Rosalind has Celia for a comrade; Viola asks the sea captain; Imogen takes the suggestion from Pisanio. How do these relationships pertain to the social anxiety surrounding cross-dressing? Is it different for Viola, who asks a man for help? For Imogen, the only one among the five who does not have the idea herself, and cross-dresses at a man’s suggestion?
    • Further Exploration: Look at Shakespeare’s sonnets for more commentary on the comparison and confusion of gender (particularly Sonnet #20). What continuing relevance do these poems and the gender-bending heroines in the plays have in the modern world, as we begin to consider more frequently ideas of gender identity, gender fluidity, and the sliding scale of human sexuality? How is the social anxiety expressed in the plays and poems like or unlike modern social anxiety around the same topics?

It would be easy to write about Twelfth Night without directly addressing these issues — to keep it locked safely in a very narrow interpretation of historical context, to ignore the potential homoerotic implications, to pass over what attention the play can draw to the fluidity of gender assignation and the possible impermeability of identity. I could skip over that. I could avoid what is still, in this country and across the world, a highly controversial topic.

But I don’t want to do that. Because I don’t know who’s in the classrooms that will be using these materials. I don’t know if there will be a girl studying Twelfth Night who has just figured out that she likes girls, or a boy who’s discovering that he likes boys, or boys and girls, or neither. I don’t know if there might be a student of either gender who has never felt right in his or her body, has never identified with what biology provided. I don’t know if there’s someone who, like Viola for much of the play, feels stuck somewhere in the middle. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know if they get support at home or from their friends, or if they’re dealing with it all in silence and isolation. I don’t know how often they hear that they’re sinful, or sick, or monstrous. And so I don’t want to close doors for them. I want to give teachers the tools explore these ideas where they live in Shakespeare’s works, rather than skimming past them.

Being a teenager is hard enough. Being a teenager who feels profoundly different from his or her peers is even harder — particularly when that difference, in so much of our country, can make you a target for prejudice, ridicule, and abuse. I like the idea that Shakespeare might be able to help, in some small way — to let those teenagers know that, even four hundred years ago, someone was questioning the stability of gender identity. More than one someone, really — Kit Marlowe’s homoerotic themes are hardly subtextual, women writers were challenging society’s gendered expectations of them, and Italian artists frequently explored androgyny and blurred gender lines in paintings and sculptures. The topic was out there in the early modern world, and students should get to know that. Even that long ago, in a world we often perceive as so much more rigid than ours, some people were pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a boy or a girl, and some were interrogating the nature of sexual attraction. Real people, not so unlike the modern readers, were exploring alternatives to the prescribed norm, questioning their own emotions and desires, and expressing that through art. So this is why I include the discussion topic in the Twelfth Night Study Guide. If Shakespeare can reach across the centuries and help just one student struggling with these issues of identity, then that makes it worth raising the issue.

Book Review: ‘Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ by James Shapiro

One of the greatest challenges for a modern historian is to remove the filter of Romanticism and Victoriana when we look backwards through time. Modern society has inherited a lot of inaccurate notions about the pre-Industrial world from our more immediate forebears, creating an assumption that the medieval and early modern worlds shared the same values, the same culture, the same societal structures, the same goals as the Victorian world – an assumption that is, in many ways, far off the mark. To achieve greater understanding of anything early modern, a historian – professional or recreational – must first clear her eyes of the haze which the nineteenth century imposed on them.

Lifting this veil is, to my reading of it, the major triumph of James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?. Both history and historiography, this book examines the case both for and against Shakespeare as the author of the works attributed to his name – and comes down, quite definitively, on the side of Shakespeare. Shapiro notes, in the opening pages of the book, his interest, which lies “not in what people think – which has been stated again and again in unambiguous terms – so much as why thy think it. No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world in which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story.” Noting the prevalence of opposing viewpoints in modern society – such as those on creationism vs evolution, whether or not man walked on the moon, and “more disturbingly,” those who deny the Holocaust deniers – Shapiro states, “I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story. At the same time, I don’t want to draw a naïve comparison between the Shakespeare controversy and any of these other issues. I think it’s a mistake to do so, except insofar as it too turns on underlying assumptions and notions of evidence that cannot be reconciled. Yet unlike some of these other controversies, I think it’s possible to get at why people have come to believe what they believe about Shakespeare’s authorship, and it is partly in the hope of doing so that I have written this book.”

Shapiro begins with the first attempts, in the eighteenth century, to expand knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works, with George Steevens and Edmund Malone arguing their various perspectives. This idea of construction, of needing to find reasons in Shakespeare’s life for the events and viewpoints in his plays, led to a somewhat desperate search on the parts of Samuel Ireland and his son, William-Henry, for new evidence about Shakespeare’s life. Unfortunately, these gentlemen came to the idea several decades too late; any evidence not already preserved was long gone. William-Henry, motivated in Shapiro’s depiction as somewhat pathetically frantic to bolster his father’s deflated confidence, embarked on an orgy of forgery, creating numerous documents in “Shakespeare’s hand”: deeds, letters, inscriptions, even entire plays. Briefly celebrated, then proved false under William-Henry’s own confession of fraud, these documents nonetheless opened the door to the search for biography in Shakespeare’s plays. Even Malone, who vigorously attacked the Irelands for the fraud, still entertained:

the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined. The floodgates were now open and others would soon urge, based on their own slanted reading of the plays, that Shakespeare must have been a mariner, a soldier, a courtier a countess, and so on. By assuming that Shakespeare had to have experienced something to write about it with such accuracy and force, Malone also, unwittingly, allowed for the opposite to be true: expertise in the self-revealing works that the scant biographical record couldn’t support – his knowledge of falconry, for example, or of seamanship, foreign lands, or the ways that the ruling class behaved – should disqualify Shakespeare as the author of the plays.

Delia Bacon, c. 1853Shapiro also positions these early days of the search for authorship evidence in light of the early attribution studies for the Bible and the works of Homer; for the first time, literary monoliths were subject to question and interrogation. Shapiro then moves through the first seeds of the anti-Stratfordian argument to its full-blown manifestations in the propositions of first Francis Bacon and then Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as alternate candidates. The Baconian theory, for instance, began with Delia Bacon (no relation) in the mid-19th century. Shapiro explains how Delia’s ideas about Francis Bacon connected to the notion of a grand conspiracy, focused on the polymath English courtier as the center of a radical proto-republican political movement. The evidence for these claims, she determined, was present in a close reading of the plays as biographical in nature. Shapiro demonstrates how the logic of such an association is inherently flawed, thanks to the limited scope both of Delia’s historical awareness and of the plays which she examined:

The framework within which [Delia Bacon] imagined the world of the English Renaissance, also typical of her day, was limited to monarchs, courtiers, and writers. The rest were written off as ignorant masses. […] It was history from the top down and limited geographically to London and the court. Her Shakespeare canon was no less restricted and also typical of nineteenth-century readers: at the center of it were Hamlet and The Tempest, and it extended to the plays meatiest in philosophical and political content – Othello, Julius Caesar, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Richard the Second, and, unusually, Coriolanus – but not much further. While she had surely read the other thirty or so plays, as well as the poetry, they didn’t serve her purpose, and for the most part she passed over them in silence.

Delia Bacon published, to moderate success, though most people who supported her initially came to regret it, because of the mental instability she developed following a very public jilting. Shortly after the release of her book, she was institutionalized, and spent the last two years of her life in an asylum. Despite this tragic end, her ideas caught fire in the decades following her death, earning the attention, if not always the outright endorsement, of celebrities including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, and Henry James. Delia Bacon also introduced the notion of a secret cipher embedded in the texts of the plays, an idea picked up and popularized by Ignatius Donnelley – and an idea risible under even the lightest scrutiny for several reasons, not least of which is that a tweak of the cipher could yield any result the seeker wanted, but also because, as Shapiro points out, “Donnelly didn’t have a clue about how compositors worked in Elizabethan printing houses, where such a scheme would have been unimaginable and the layout he describes impossible to reproduce.”

By the 1920s, however, Shapiro points out that “Philosophy and politics were out, Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in,” giving rise to the new Oxfordian theory. Psychoanalysis imagined a link between the writer of Hamlet and the character of Hamlet, based on repressed sexual urges and dysfunctional family relationships. Sigmund Freud questioned Shakespeare’s identity but did not embrace Bacon as the alternative; John Thomas Looney (pronounced “loany”, despite temptations to the contrary) picked up the psychoanalytic thread and proposed Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Shakespeare’s life did not mirror the required narrative; the Earl of Oxford’s could, especially if you layered on other theories about de Vere being Queen Elizabeth’s lover and/or son. From a secret political group under Bacon’s direction, the anti-Shakespearean case now rested on a more lurid narrative: a conspiracy tinged with sexual misconduct, succession anxiety, and disrupted inheritance.

For decades, the Oxfordians plagued themselves with divisive conclusions about this reading, however: nobody knew about the conspiracy; everyone knew and didn’t think it worth mentioning; everyone knew but was kept silent by Queen Elizabeth’s totalitarian state; a select group knew and kept it quiet to protect the Queen; and so on. Never mind that Oxford died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written; in the scope of such an all-encompassing conspiracy, Oxfordians find that small matter to explain away. They were written earlier, and released after his death, as a way of perpetuating the myth of William Shakespeare as the front man. Shapiro details how, in more recent years, the Oxfordian theory has gained traction due to the public’s increasing fOCSination with conspiracy theories of all sorts. From moon landings to who shot JFK to the vast circulation of conceptions about secret government involvement in nearly every act of tragedy or terrorism of the past three decades, modern culture has propagated a pervasive suspicion of authority. “In such a climate,” Shapiro says, “a minor act of conspiratorial suppression on the part of Tudor authorities made perfect sense.”

Overall, the impression this book leaves a reader with is that the anti-Shakespearean case is one stuffed with tragic figures and ulterior motives. Its very earliest characters are among the saddest: poor William-Henry Ireland, desperately seeking a father’s approval, and jilted Delia Bacon, who clung to her theories as a way of reclaiming agency over her life, but with a paranoid mania that drove her to madness and death. These are the figures often left out of the Baconian and Oxfordian narratives; they prefer, naturally, to tout the support of such grand figures as Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud. As Shapiro demonstrates, however, the rationale of the great figures is not untainted, either. They all require vast constructs, additions and suppositions to the historical record. Freud’s support of the Oxfordian case is deeply tied to his own theories about Oedipal desire; he had to read Hamlet in terms of Oxford’s own familial-sexual-philosophical entanglements, because to suppose that the story came from any other origin was a strike against the psychological theories on which he made his living and his fame.

Mark Twain's book questioning Shakespeare's identityIt’s Twain’s rationale, and Shapiro’s dissection thereof, that I find most interesting and most telling. Twain echoes Malone in supposing it impossible for a writer to draw from anything but experience; “For Twain, the notion that great writing had to be drawn from life – rather than from what an author heard, read, or simply imagined – was an article of faith, at the heart of his conception of how serious writers worked.” It is, in many ways, a very strange idea, taking imagination so entirely out of the equation, but it was a product of its time; in the 19th and early 20th centuries, more and more writers were publishing memoirs, and biography was a popular genre. The close association between fiction and experience was deeply embedded in the culture, providing fertile ground in which the anti-Shakespearean attitudes could take root. This is one of the more difficult veils to penetrate when looking back at the early modern period through modern eyes – the idea that the early modern writers simply did not view their craft in the same way that the Victorian tradition has convinced us all writers must.

Shapiro asserts that this legacy lives on in writing today, that modern readers retain assumptions that “novels necessarily reveal something about a writer’s life.” I would argue that this is more true in so-called “literary” fiction than it is of genre fiction. Readers of science fiction and fantasy novels (or viewers of those movies) — and to an extent, of mysteries, thrillers, and romances as well — have no more expectation of a creator’s personal experience with the subject matter than Shakespeare’s original audiences had. We need no more assume that Shakespeare had first-hand knowledge of Italy than that George Lucas had of Tatooine, J. R. R. Tolkien of Middle-Earth, or J. K. Rowling of Hogwarts. While “serious” fiction often retains a more autobiographical bent, I think it is in genre fiction that writers operate more like Shakespeare did: indulging freely in the realm of imagination, drawing off of previous stories, history and mythology, and timeless tropes for their inspiration. There you find writers more interested in telling a good story than in talking about themselves – which is not to say that glimpses of a writer’s viewpoint won’t peep through from time to time, but they don’t dominate in the way that post-Romantic assumptions would indicate. (It is in many ways ironic that the very people who disdain the use of imagination in writing are so wonderfully and copiously imaginative themselves, at least when it comes to creating the fantasy narratives necessarily to support alternate authorship candidates).

The final chapter of the book is a tour de force in defense of Shakespeare – though Shapiro acknowledges the absurdity that Shakespeareans should even be on the defensive, that the burden of proof has somehow shifted to us to prove there is no conspiracy, rather than on the Oxfordians to prove that there is. After entertaining the anti-Stratfordians and exposing their flaws, Shapiro comes down unquestionably (and refreshingly unapologetically) on the side of Shakespeare of Stratford:

When asked how I can be so confident that Shakespeare was [the plays’] author, I point to several kinds of evidence. The first is what early printed texts reveal; the second, what writers who knew Shakespeare said about him. Either of these, to my mind, suffices to confirm his authorship – and the stories they tell corroborate each other. All this is reinforced by additional evidence from the closing years of his career, when he began writing for a new kind of playhouse, in a different style, in active collaboration with other writers.

Shapiro then defends Shakespeare with a barrage of real, concrete evidence – text-based evidence including examples of speech prefixes, the process of printing plays, the relationship of typesetting to the variant spellings of Shakespeare’s name, his demonstrated familiarity with actors, and so forth. The proof of such deep association with the playing companies, the theatre building, and the workings of the shareholders effectively eradicates any validity to the presumption that the plays could have been written by someone who did not inhabit that world.

Shapiro also engages with the testimonies of so many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, identifying the man from Stratford as the man who wrote the plays: George Buc, Master of the Revels; Robert Greene, vitriolic pamphleteer; Francis Meers, whose Palladis Tamia lists all of Shakespeare’s plays which had been acted by 1598; Gabriel Harvey, poetry critic; William Camden, historian; playwrights John Webster, Francis Beaumont, and Thomas Heywood — the list goes on and on, but the trump card is fellow playwright, rival, and friend, Ben Jonson, who “left the most personal and extensive tributes to Shakespeare. For many, his testimony alone resolves any doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays.” Consider me one of them. Even if we did not have the voluminous other evidence that we do have, Jonson alone would convince me. He comments both so prolifically and so personally on Shakespeare’s writing that I find it a violation of Occam’s Razor to imagine that he was either ignorant or part of a vast conspiracy – and knowing what I know about Jonson, I really can’t believe he could have kept a secret of that magnitude. From Ben Jonson's epitaph to Shakespeare, in the preface of the 1623 First Folio

Finally, Shapiro draws a connection between Shakespeare’s plays and the playing spaces he wrote for, discussing how the space affected what kind of story Shakespeare could tell and how he could tell it, particularly thanks to a distinct change towards the end of his career:

We have also had drummed into us that he was Shakespeare of the Globe – though that playhouse was built only in the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign. Long forgotten are the other playing spaces in and around London in which he had built his reputation over the previous decade: the Theatre, the Curtain, Newington Butts, the Rose, Richmond, Whitehall, perhaps a brief stint at the Swan. … But had you asked anyone on the streets of London in the winter of 1610 where you could go to see Shakespeare’s latest play, there would have been only one answer: ‘Blackfriars.’ The Blackfriars Theatre means little today to most admirers of Shakespeare; so far as I know, only a single replica of it has ever been erected, in rural Virginia, which attracts both spectators and scholars. The story of the Blackfriars Theatre is also the story of the Jacobean Shakespeare, and of the particular challenges he faced toward the end of his playwriting career. And that, in turn, helps explain why only Shakespeare could have written his late plays that were staged there.

Shapiro’s recognition is apt and accurate, and that close relationship between writer and playing space is one we frequently refer to in our educational materials and workshops. A different kind of theatre demanded a different kind of plays, and Shakespeare’s latest works reflect that shift, making a reconstruction of the plays’ timeline to fit a 1604 death date absurd. I hope this spatial connection becomes a stronger part of the narrative of the “controversy” – perhaps it will help the Blackfriars Theatre and its descendent, our Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, earn greater recognition as one of Shakespeare’s prominent theatrical homes.

The final chapter of Contested Will ought to hammer home, once and for all, that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, setting the matter entirely to rest. Except, as Shapiro ably points out, there is no arguing with a conspiracy theorist. Any evidence just gets twisted to support the idea of a vast cover-up. Nonetheless, Shapiro’s book is a veritable armory of weapons, both offensive and defensive, for the Shakespearean set. What’s more, he delivers all of his information with felicity and wit; the book is a wonderful read as well as an intellectual triumph. I highly recommend it to anyone with a dog in this fight, as it were, but also to anyone who is simply interested in writing and in how ideas about it have evolved over time. Shapiro provides us not only with a rousing defense of Shakespeare, but also a valuable peek through the veils of time, rolling back our assumptions and laying bare the reality, insofar as it is knowable.

If you’re interested in further thoughts on this topic, please join the OCS on March 31st at 10:30am at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen will be delivering a lecture featuring his own dissection of the authorship matter, entitled “Knock, Knock: Who Wrote Shakespeare?”

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 24 February 2012

A few notes and points of interest from the world of Shakespeare studies this week:

  • London’s Globe Theatre has awarded its first PhDs to Sarah Dustagheer and Penelope Woods. These women are both friends of the OCS: Woods presented on audience studies at our 2009 Blackfriars Conference, and Dustagheer observed an Actors’ Renaissance Season, giving presentations to the MBC MLitt/MFA program on the differences between playing the Globe and playing the Blackfriars Playhouse. Congratulations to them both, and to the Globe for enacting this joint degree-awarding venture with Queen Mary, University of London, and King’s College London.
  • The new “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700” exhibit at the Folger Library challenges the notion that early modern women didn’t write (or, as Virginia Woolf famously asserted, that, if they did, they must have been driven mad by the frustrations of it). The exhibit celebrates such notable female authors as Veronica Franco, Lady Anne Clifford, Lady Mary Wroth, the Mancini sisters, Aemilia Lanyer, Aphra Behn, Susanna Centlivre, and (my personal favorite early modern woman) Lady Mary Herbert. If you can’t make it to DC to see the exhibit in person, selections from it are also available online.
  • This week, the OCS welcomes alumni from Dartmouth College for a weekend of entertainment and scholarship. Peter Saccio, the Leon D. Black Professor of Shakespearean Studies at Dartmouth College, was the editor of A Mad World, My Masters for the Middleton Complete Works. Saccio gave a public lecture last night, detailing some of the textual oddities of the script and what that can mean for the stage, and will give several private lectures to the Dartmouth group throughout the weekend.
  • Education Week featured an article on the challenge educators face when attempting to tie their lesson plans to Core Curriculum Standards. “Their current materials fall short, and there is a dearth of good new ones to fill the void.” OCS Study Guides (now available on lulu.com!) feature not only guidelines for fulfilling Virginia’s Standards of Learning, but also the U.S. Core Curriculum Standards.

As a final note, remember that you still have a few days to get in your nominations for the 2012 Shakespearean March Madness. I’ve already heard support for Hotspur, Cassius, the Duke of Cornwall, and Richard II. Pitch your pick for this no-holds-barred brawl here.

"The pancake bell rings, the pancake bell! Tri-lil, my hearts!": Shrove Tuesday in Early Modern England

Nowadays in America, we know today — the day before Ash Wednesday, 41 days before Easter — as Mardi Gras, a festival of extravagance and delight, with traditions passed down to us from the French and Italians. From the bayou to Rio, the Carnival season ends in a triumphant celebration of life and laughter, with parades, parties, fantastic costumes, throwing of beads, and yes, some degree of inebriation.

But for Shakespeare and his contemporaries in late-16th century England, this day was something different: Shrove Tuesday. And on Shrove Tuesday, you ate pancakes. Why pancakes? Because they involved many of the rich foodstuffs — sugar, fat, flour and eggs — whose consumption was restricted during Lent (which Anglicans still observed, despite the break with the Catholic Church). It was also a day to gorge yourself on meat and drink, to clear the larders of all those things you couldn’t eat during Lent and couldn’t afford to let spoil in the meantime.

This tradition is the subject of several scenes in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, where the apprentices of the City of London look forward to a great feast:

Firk: I’ll lead you to victuals, my brave soldiers. Follow your captain. Oh, brave! (Bell rings). Hark, hark!

All:
The pancake bell rings, the pancake bell! Tri-lill, my hearts!

Firk:
Oh brave! O sweet bell! O delicate pancakes! Open the doors, my hearts, and shut up the windows. Keep in the house, let out the pancakes. Oh, rare, my hearts! Let’s march together for the honor of Saint Hugh to the great new hall in Gracious Street Corner, which our master the new Lord Mayor hath built.

Ralph:
Oh, the crew of good fellows that will dine at my Lord Mayor’s cost today!

Hodge:
By the lord, my Lord Mayor is a most brave man. How shall prentices be bound to pray for him and the honor of the Gentlemen Shoemakers! Let’s feed and be fat with my lord’s bounty.

Firk:
Oh, musical bell still! Oh Hodge, o my brethren! There’s cheer for the heavens: venison pasties walk up and down piping hot like sergeants, beef and brewis comes marching in dry fats, fritters and pancakes comes trolling in in wheelbarrows, lemons and oranges hopping in porters’ baskets, collops and eggs in scuttles, and tarts and custards comes quavering in in malt shovels.

Enter more prentices.


All:
Whoop! Look here, look here!

Hodge:
How now, mad lads, whither away so fast?

First Prentice:
Whither? Why, to the new great hall. Know you not why? The Lord Mayor hath bidden all the prentices in London to breakfast this morning.

All:
O brave shoemaker! O brave lord of incomprehensible good fellowship! Hoo, hark you, the pancake bell rings.

Cast up caps.


Firk:
Nay, more, my hearts: every Shrove Tuesday is our year of jubilee, and when the pancake bell rings, we are as free as my Lord Mayor; we may shut up our shops and make holiday. I’ll have it called Saint Hugh’s holiday.

All:
Agreed, agreed! Saint Hugh’s holiday!

Hodge:
And this shall continue forever.

All:
Oh brave! Come, come, my hearts! Away, away!

Firk:
Oh, eternal credit to us of the Gentle Craft! March fair, my hearts. Oh, rare!

As someone who has had the “oh, rare!” honor to play Firk in a production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday (directed by Casey Caldwell back in 2010, as part of his MFA), I can verify that this scene only works if you embrace its jubilant madness entirely — much in the spirit of Shrove Tuesday or its modern descendents. You have to let the good times roll over you and indulge thoroughly in the exuberance — and there’s something marvelously freeing about giving yourself over to that on stage.

But, as a scholar, I enjoy what this scene tells us about the historical celebrations: Firk gives a detailed menu, listing what the prentices can look forward to at their feast; the ringing of the bell to announce the holiday has historical precedence; and the freedom to “shut up shop” for the afternoon is likewise chronicled elsewhere. Dekker thus provides social historians with a glimpse into Shrove Tuesday’s place in the religious and celebratory calendar of early modern England. The tradition lives on — pancakes are still a typical Shrove Tuesday meal in many Anglican and Lutheran communities, and several cities in England still hold pancake races on the holiday.

So — Who’s up for some pancakes?

Exploration and Revelation: The Winter 2012 Teacher Seminar

This past weekend, we held our Winter Teacher Seminar, a two-day event where participants attend workshops and lectures and see two of the plays of the Actors’ Renaissance Season. Thanks in part to a generous grant from the Richard and Caroline T. Gwathmey Memorial Trust, more educators than ever were able to join us – and we had a group from diverse teaching backgrounds: middle schools, high schools, and universities, public and private, military and religious, as well as some professional acting companies and arts organizations. We also had participants join us from as far away as Florida and Pennsylvania, as well as representing 16 cities and counties within Virginia. It was so exciting to have such a full, enthusiastic group with us for the weekend. I always feel so energized after these events, so full of joy for the work that we do together and for the new avenues of insight these educators feed back to me.

Saturday’s workshops focused on Much Ado about Nothing, Sunday’s on Richard III. Ralph drew connections between the two plays, and how each has its moments of invited and inappropriate laughter, and each its moments inviting or castigating silence. He drew a correlation between these moments on stage and in the classroom – after all, there are times teachers desperately hope that their students laugh at a joke, and there are times teachers abhor hearing laughter. He also encouraged the teachers to find their own personal hook within the play, something that calls to them and energizes them, and to teach those moments. Teaching requires no small part of vulnerability, to lay out the things you care for to what may often seem an unruly mob of the disaffected and cynical.

Saturday morning, we also modeled one of the activities out of the Much Ado about Nothing Study Guide. This one was my baby, and I’d been looking forward to working through it with our seminar attendees ever since I wrote it back in November – so I was actually fairly nervous heading in. Like any teacher, I have had, on occasion, something I’m really excited about flop rather pathetically when brought to the table. I always learn something from that experience – how I might need to tweak the activity, toss out elements that aren’t working, or graft a new idea on – but failure isn’t exactly pleasant to go through, however constructive it may ultimately be. So, heart in my hands, I stepped up to lead this workshop. And it went wonderfully(!).

The exploration is an active one, examining how language can inform character choices in the various sparring matches between Beatrice and Benedick. Participants – with the help of the rest of the class – look for moments when one character repeats the other, builds on a metaphor the other started, or arranges contrast of some kind. What the seminar attendees discovered – as I’d hoped they would – is that while Beatrice and Benedick use the same rhetorical devices with each other in three different scenes, the way they use them creates three very different moods, from the aggressive sparring of 1.1 to the tender hesitation of 4.1 to the playful equilibrium achieved in 5.2. We make these devices visual and kinetic – to appeal to different kinds of learners – by having our Beatrice and Benedick peg nerf balls at each other each time, highlighting the verbal tennis match they engage in. It was great to see at what moments one of them (usually Beatrice) was able to score more points.

I love this activity for how it demonstrates several different advantages of performance-based learning: first, how Shakespeare creates these characters as so right for each other. No one else in the play – even in a play as full of quick wits as Much Ado is – can quite match their verbal dexterity. Second, the activity highlights that “infinite variety” of performance choices Sarah and I are always talking about. The rhetoric gives actors – and students – not an answer, but the grounds on which to make a decision. Our avatar Beatrices and Benedicks were able to offer so many alternatives on even the smallest moment – it really drives home that idea of performance-based learning. Finally, this activity appeals to many different kinds of learners, as it involves verbal, textual, visual, and kinetic elements. Everyone from the class clown to the shiest member of the class has a place in this activity. I think all of those elements came across for our seminar attendees, and I’m so pleased I got to share this workshop with them.

You can view a sample of this workshop in-progress on YouTube:

The Gwathmey grant also allowed us to bring two guest speakers to Staunton, giving our participants the chance to interact with scholars whose research bears a direct emphasis on the plays they saw and their classroom activities. Chelsea Phillips, a veteran of MBC’s MLitt/MFA program and now a third-year Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, came down to share thoughts related to her dissertation: the presence of pregnant bodies on stage. This discussion is particularly relevant this year, as Miriam Donald, who plays Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing and the Duchess of York, among other roles, in Richard III, is visibly pregnant. We wanted to offer teachers – especially those bringing their students to see one of those two productions this year – the benefit of Chelsea’s research into the historical precedent of pregnant actresses playing non-pregnant roles, in order to give them a solid grounding on which to base classroom discussion. Chelsea also works on Ohio State’s partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company implementing the RSC’s Stand Up for Shakespeare program in local schools, making her a valuable resource on Shakespeare in the classroom. On Sunday, Carter Hailey joined us for a lecture-demo on textual variants. Carter has taught Medieval and Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, and textual studies at Washington and Lee University, the College of William and Mary (where yours truly was one of his students), Sweet Briar College, and Georgetown University, and he publishes on matters bibliographical, lexical, and editorial. In addition to discussing the textual histories of Much Ado about Nothing and Richard III, he shared Hailey’s COMET, a portable optical collator of his own design and construction, which provides critical editors with a new way of examining variants between texts. We synthesized Carter’s lecture with an exploration of how to use textual variants in the classroom as a way to give students greater ownership of the text, allowing them to realize that there is no One Shakespeare to Rule Them All – rather, that the text as they see it has already passed through the hands of many compositors and editors, and that they may make choices based on this awareness.

So, that was the weekend. As ever, I wished I had more time. There’s always so much more to say, more staging moments to discuss, more of Shakespeare’s word- and stagecraft to explore. I’m already looking forward to our spring seminar, in April, when we’ll be leaping into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale. I’m also going to be releasing a survey soon, both to our seminar participants and to anyone who’s purchased a Study Guide from us, asking for feedback on the information and activities we provide. It’s interesting to have to examine what it is I need to know from our teachers – a sort of backwards self-evaluation. I’ll be putting their feedback into practice when I start – very soon – building the Study Guides for next year. My first endeavor will be Twelfth Night, as we already have folks booking the touring company asking for it. I love seeing so much advance enthusiasm for the OCS’s synthesis of education and performance. I extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who joined us this past weekend, and I sincerely hope we’ll see you all again soon.

2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival: Session 3

Welcome back for the afternoon session of the 2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. This session will feature six presenters and runs from 1:30-4:30pm.

Dori Koogler: “Upon a True Contract: Handfasting and Clandestine Marriage in Shakespeare’s Plays”

Koogler opens with a discussion of the conditions of marriage in the early modern period, focusing on the physical components of a “spousal contract”: vows, joining of hands, kiss, and the exchange of rings. Made in the present tense, these components constituted a marriage; in the future tense, they constituted a betrothal, which was still considered legally binding. Koogler offers evidence not only from historical realities but also from clues within Shakespeare’s plays. In early modern England, while marriage might have legal entanglements, and while paperwork could be useful in a dispute over validity, all that the Church required was mutual consent; this changed with the Marriage Act in 1754. The Church did require, however, the presence of witnesses; without witnesses, a marriage was considered “clandestine and irregular”. Due to common cultural awareness of these irregular marriages, Koogler notes that it became fertile ground for exploration on the early modern stage. Shakespeare treats in some manner with these irregular marriages in a third of his plays. Adkins and Malicki present several instances of espousal contracts and handfastings in Shakespeare’s plays.

Koogler gives a deeper examination to the idea of betrothal in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In 2.2, Julia and Proteus make vows, exchange rings, join hands, and “seal the bargain in a holy kiss”. Koogler argues that, because the “cultural experiences of betrothal have changed so much in the past 400 years”, modern audiences may not as easily grasp the depth of the situation. The transgression, she argues, would have resonated more strongly with an early modern audience, who saw Proteus not only breaking up with his girlfriend, but breaking a legal bond and a scared vow. Koogler further speculates on the suspected betrothal between Florizel and Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. Though this play does not include lines detailing the ceremony, as The Two Gentlemen of Verona does, Koogler argues (and Malicki and Adkins demonstrate) that it may be possible for Florizel and Perdita to enact the entire ceremony during a 6-line monologue of Camillo’s. Koogler finishes by stating that using modern marriage signifiers, particularly with regard to the exchange of rings, modern productions can amplify the importance of these betrothals to better approach the weight they would have had for an early modern audience.

Stephanie Tschetter: “In the Closet: Unstaged Staged Directions during the Interregnum”

Tschetter opens by surveying the audience’s awareness of closet drama. She positions her exploration during the Interregnum, while the theatres were closed, and notes that closet dramas were initially intended for readers to imagine, rather than for actors to perform in a theatre. Tschetter notes that both early critical and modern conceptions seem to consider closet dramas as undesirable, without a reason to take the dramatic form that they do. Tschetter challenges the idea that closet dramas ignore theatrical realities and conventions of the stage; rather, because of their inherent form, the stage directions “are clearly conceived for the conditions of the early modern theatre.” She focuses on those plays written during the Interregnum, which suggest that the plays may indeed have been meant to be played, but were legally prevented from public presentation. Tschetter’s actors (Monica Cross, Jessi Malicki, Michael Wagoner, Jamie Weaver, and Liz Lodato) read stage directions from these plays, demonstrating their potential connections to the actual stage.

Tschetter offers an example from William Chamberlain’s Love’s Victory. She notes the difference between the embedded stage direction an actor could rely on and the explicit directions needed to make a visual picture clear for a reader’s imagination. Tschetter argues that writers expected these readers to have familiarity with the picture of the stage, as those audience members would likely, before the 1642 closing of the theatres, have seen plays on the stages they now had to imagine.

Further directions inform the reader not only of early modern staging conditions but of the tricks of the trade, such as the concealment of blood within sponges tied to the middle finger and concealed in the palm. In this way, Tschetter points out that closet dramas deserve attention for what they have to teach us about early modern staging effects.

James Byers: “Concealing the Mere Irish: An Analysis of English Performance of Irish Ethnicity on the Early Modern Stage”

Byers opens with a presentation from Ben Jonson’s Irish Masque (with help from actors Jonathan Haas, AJ Sclafani, and Jarom Brown); Byers notes the long, complex, and often contradictorily-characterized nature of the millennium-long conflict between the English and Irish. He gives a short history of the conflict, dating back to Henry II’s initialization of the conquest of the island. The original colonists in the Pale became isolated from the English and eventually came to occupy a liminal state between the native Gaelic Irish and the English on the other side of the Irish Channel. By the 1500s, Henry VIII and other monarchs had sent more colonists to reinforce English presence in and control of the island. After a period of relative peace in the late 16th- and early 17th-century, rebellions crested again in the 1630s; Cromwell moved in during the Interregnum to re-establish control. The idea of the “barbarous Irishmen” served as a source of apprehension and fear for the English, with wild myths springing up around their supposed possession of strange patterns.

Byers moves to examining characteristics of Irish characters on the English stage. First, the accent, which is not necessarily the be-all and the end-all of an Irish character, but which are a signifier and which provide a mean of “tracking the evolution” of such characters. He also examines the various character types, including rebels, military captains, criminals, bawds, servants, and apprentices. The latter of these “represent the subservience of the Irish in England.” With the help of his actors, Byers presents examples of all of the various types for the audience. This exploration carries weight, Byers notes, not only for better understanding of the early modern plays, but, with consideration for the ongoing nature of relations between the two nations, by way of “exploring the nature of reactions” to ethnic representations and to our own concepts of stereotypes.

Angelina LaBarre: “Hip Hop Pedagogy and Shakespeare: Performative Verse, Then and Now”

LaBarre and her actors (Elizabeth Rentfro, AJ Sclafani, Jarom Brown, and Melissa Tolner) slouch their way onto stage in hoodies and sunglasses. LaBarre begins by acknowledging the racial and cultural history of hip-hop, then stating that those origins have no direct relevance for the scope of her thesis. Rather, she intends to focus on the linguistic similarities between hip hop and Shakespeare and how those similarities can provide an advantage for modern teachers. She argues that early modern theatre occupied the same cultural space as hip hop does today, as a rhythmic verbal performance tradition. She relates the squaring-off between the Caesarian faction and the Liberators in 5.1 of Julius Caesar to “The Dozens“, an insult contest of personal power, valuing quick responses and verbal acuity.

LaBarre delineates some of the similarities between rhythm and vocabulary. Rentfro demonstrates “flowcabulary” — a method which translates Shakespeare’s language into modern vernacular. LaBarre notes that this teachers students nothing but the plot. Tolner then presents a quote from a modern hiphopper, and LaBarre points out that almost no one in the audience understood what she was saying. This, she states, provides a teachable moment about the use of slang and colloquialism in verse. She describes an exercise which compares today’s slang to Shakespeare’s, asking students what people four hundred years from now might make of the word “gangsta”. LaBarre’s actors then demonstrate the iambic pentameter rhythm of modern hiphop verse, and LaBarre points out the presence of irregularities and caesuras in the lines. These breaks in the rhythm serve both the plot and the emotional mood of the verse. Her next example relates to alexandrines, with natural mid-line breaks, as well as demonstrating several rhetoric devices employed by the rapper.

LaBarre ends her presentation by expressing her hopes that these connections between Shakespeare’s language and modern hip hop will provide fertile ground for educators seeking new ways to make Shakespeare relevant and interesting to their students. The lyrical inventiveness and rhetorical dexterity of both forms provide a strong basis for comparison. She is currently developing a curriculum based around these concepts for a teacher in Richmond, VA.

Jonathan Haas: “Virginity and the Problem Plays: An Investigation”

Haas’s presentation examines the moral, social, and spiritual ambiguity of virginity’s importance in Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. He begins by examining the idea of the pre-contract and the idea of whether or not a formal betrothal allowed for sexual congress. Using David Cressy as his source, Haas notes the double standard: that many considered varying degrees of sexual liberties acceptable, despite potential legal and religious consequences.

Haas moves to an examination of Measure for Measure and the ambiguity of Claudio’s and Juliet’s exact nuptial state. He presents various opinions, both from libertines and the supposedly virtuous characters, about the acceptability of post-contract pre-nuptial sexual contract. Even Isabella, who professes to hate the sin of lust, expresses approval of the activity and her hope for the child that will come of the union. Haas posits this as representative of the tension between cultural and legal/religious expectations in early modern society. Haas also notes the differences between Catholic and Protestant opinions on virginity. After the Reformation, the veneration of virginity faded, and many patriarchal views condemned the chosen permanent virginity of a nun as “a dangerous and disruptive thing”, a way out of the strictures and expected roles for women. Measure for Measure explores both sides of the argument, demonstrating both characters who view virginity as a noble and appropriate choice and as an inferior, subversive, or dangerous choice. In this way, the problem play engages the cultural conflict over “the messy standards of virginity”.

Maria Hart: “Munday Seeking More: Religion, Politics, and Biography on the Early Modern Stage”

Hart’s presentation examines how Sir Thomas More contains reference to a political agenda by its primary author, Anthony Munday. Hart believes that, in this selection of More as a topic, Munday revealed a sympathy for English Catholics, in relation to the martyrology of Thomas Becket and Thomas More during the early modern period. Hart gives a short history of More’s political history and his conflict during the English Reformation. She continues through the shifting religious allegiance of England as a state during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, following the narrative of English recusants and secret Catholics in particular. This tradition included a print culture which propagated stories of Thomas More “as martyr and saint” — one of several famous for their refusal to renounce Catholicism. These traditions linked More to the earlier martyr Becket, assassinated under the reign (and ambiguous instructions) of Henry II for his refusal to submit to the king more than to the Church. The Protestant view, by contrast, considered the Catholics as heretics, and those Protestants that they burned the martyrs.

Hart follows this up with Munday’s personal history, who on the surface may appear a “flip-flopping opportunist”, as well as a government informant on recusants, but who Hart believes reveals himself in his plays as having stronger convictions. Her actors (Liz Lodato, Jonathan Haas, Rachel Ratkowski, Brian Maxwell, AJ Sclafani) present More’s execution scene, which Hart notes as portraying More with definite sympathy. The rest of Munday’s plays, she explains, likewise treat with issues of the Catholic/Protestant divide in England. At the least, she sees in Thomas More “a reverence and sympathy for the ex-Chancellor,” suggesting that Munday may have felt some guilt in himself for his role as an informant, and sought to exonerate that guilt dramatically.

We’re off for a dinner (or, perhaps, tea) break now — back at 5:30 for the final session of the festival.

For the rest of the Festival, see these posts:
Session 1
Session 2
Session 4

2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival: Session 2

Good morning, scholars — We’re back again, bright and early, for Session 2 of the MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. This session runs from 9:30am to 12:00pm.

Clara Giebel: “Playing Paper”

Giebel’s presentation begins with an interesting tableau: Katy Mulvaney, Linden Kueck, and Amanda Noel Allen on-stage, crafting — rather than, as we might expect, sitting on the gallant stools holding scripts. Giebel explains that sometimes a tradition should be broken “just because there’s something we’d rather do,” and that she hopes their presence will provide a meaningful counterpoint to her ideas.

She moves into discussing the typical structure and tropes of fairy tales, and she shares illustrations from some classic fairy tales via a Powerpoint presentation. She explains that these images are not only beautiful but “look right to our eyes”, with conventional tropes reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts. She expands the idea further, referring to how Disney’s fairy tale movies often open with the frame narrative of books, giving images of pages turning before the animation begins. Giebel explains these frame devices as important because of the “time of textual transmission” we currently exist in. The movement of page to screen, first scene from books to movies, is now prominent in the idea of moving from books to e-readers. She demonstrates various “skins” and covers for e-readers which attempt to recover the tangible and visual elements that are lost in the transmission to digital text. She posits that the two most important elements lost are the paper itself and the “codex”, or non-textual visual information, which she demonstrates through a reading of “The Monster at the End of This Book” and through a consideration of pop-up books, which “glory in the paper-ness of paper”. Giebel talks about the importance of sound, smell, and texture to the experience of reading, and relates those concepts to ideas of crafting.

Giebel then brings her ideas around to the early modern period, looking at the history of textile handwork, particularly with regards to gender assignations of various tasks such as embroidery and knitting, seen as female tasks both in the early modern period and in the 21st century. She notes, however, that these tasks no longer have the same cultural significance, thanks to mass marketing — similar to the fading essentialism of paper in books.

Teachers, parents, and the media, as Giebel points out, teach fairy tales to children, but particularly to girls, emphasizing the female character “as the object of other characters’ acts and desires”, not as the agent. She notes that Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well both draws on and inverts these fairy tale tropes, featuring not just one, but several active women. Helena has to mangle her own sentences to try and fit herself into the expected passive role. All’s Well is “a fairy tale, but a problematic one… a deliciously messy one” in contrast to the neat, happy endings of Disney’s fairy tales. Giebel has worked with Linden Kueck to design a paper-based set for All’s Well That Ends Well based on these concepts, particularly as an exploration of the gender issues at play. She ends by foregrounding the need to examine, in this concept of textual transmission and shifting gender roles, what we want to keep from the past and what we want to move on to — a world where we can both read blogs on our cellphones, but also enjoy the texture and physical reality of paper, “where boys can learn embroidery and girls can be the king”.

Brian Maxwell: “The First Generation: The Dawn of American Shakespeare”

Maxwell’s presentation begins by interrogating our awareness, in the American Shakespeare Center, of the history of Shakespeare in America. Actors Jarom Brown, Brian Falbo, Rebecca Hodder, and Zach Brown assist by taking on the personas of various 19th-century American Shakespearean actors. Maxwell contrasts the various acting styles of these historical actors: Forrest, Cushman, Booth (Edwin, not his infamous brother), and Jefferson. Forrest represents the emotional style, requiring the actor to give himself over entirely to the affect of the character. Maxwell notes that this style was incredibly popular in the first half of the nineteenth century in America and drew in the working-classes to the theatre. By contrast, Booth and Jefferson display the style which became popular in the second half of the century. This style was a “launching point for Stanislavski’s method”, praised for its naturalism, but less popular with those of the working classes seated in the galleries and a bit too far from the gaslit stage to appreciate the nuances.

Maxwell then encourages Forrest and Booth to dueling monologues. The contrast, with Forrest’s bombastic style and Booth’s understated delivery, makes plain the differences between the early and late methods. Maxwell credits both styles as important to American theatrical heritage. He also posits that these actors, others like them, and their companies gave America cultural credit on the world stage. He shares a 1902 video of Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle and an 1890 wax cylinder audio recording by Edwin Booth.

Daniel Kennedy: “From Place to Space: The Abstraction and Diminution of Hell on the Renaissance Stage”

Kennedy begins by coaxing us all into singing “Happy Birthday” to Christopher Marlowe. He then discusses the OCS Actors’ Renaissance Season production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and the dismay of the actors when, each time they revealed the painted-plywood hellmouth, the audience chuckled. Kennedy sketches out the history of the hellmouth, with its roots in medieval representations of Biblical stories. Early illustrations envisioned “an open pit” to invoke Hell; later a volcano, initially considered appropriate for its fiery and sulpherous nature, but later rejected as too passive; later the heads of beasts, particularly dragons. He positions the evolution in relation to attempts to convert the Danish pagans of north England: “Now, if I know Vikings, at least one of those bad motherf*ckers has walked out of a volcano. I don’t think any have walked out of a dragon’s mouth.” Clearly, this imagery would have had a resonance for the England-occupying Danes.

The hellmouth became a convention of the morality plays, an intricate construction, but one which, Kennedy notes with some dejection, audiences found “amusingly wonderful” rather than terrifying or awe-inspiring. He shows an illustration of the stage mansions of Valenciennes, the elaborate decorated carts used for these plays. He notes that, while the hellmouth itself disappeared, the opposition of Heaven and Hell remained prominent. While the structure of the medieval stage mansions positioned Heaven and Hell in horizontal opposition, the early modern audience was conditioned to think of up, the balcony or “heavens”, as good and down, through the trap, as bad. The stage pictures became less religious spectacle, less a stylistic presentation, and more an interpretation of inner struggle.

Kennedy moves on to a discussion of the various texts of Doctor Faustus, noting that the A text, earlier published, lacks elements present in the later B text, considered the version closer to Marlowe’s intended play. The stage direction “Hell is discovered” indicates that, reminiscent of the medieval morality plays, Hell must be visibly represented on the stage. Where, however, remains ambiguous. Kennedy presents it first as revealed in the discovery space, drawing on the image of a dragon’s head gaping open to consume Faustus; then a second time, using the trap. In the second version, the Bad Angel’s description becomes more critical to feeding the audience’s imagination as the means for invoking Hell, rather than an actual stage depiction. Kennedy notes that while Shakespeare never directly calls for a hellmouth as Marlowe does, he still visually invokes the concepts of Hell, demons, and the afterlife in several plays (Hamlet, Macbeth, 1 and 2 Henry VI). He suggests that the accepted convention of the trap as Hell can inform the interpretation of the ghost of Hamlet’s father; if he enters from the trap, the audience may assume him as a demonic figure. He also relates the concept to certain resonances in Macbeth to the idea of the Harrowing of Hell, particularly as relevant in the Porter scene.

Elizabeth Rentfro: “For I Am She: The Development of Margaret of Anjou in Performance”

Rentfro’s presentation opens with a presentation from Richard III, with most of the cast (Liz Lodato, Brian Falbo, Mel Johnson, Dane Leasure, Deb Streusand, Jessica Schiermeister, Stephanie Tschetter, Kelly Elliot, and Rachel Ratkowski) on-stage, and Rentfro, as Margaret, moving in from the audience. Following Margaret’s intrusion into the body of the scene, Rentfro details her experience having played Margaret in both full productions and staged readings across the “Margaret canon” of Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Richard III. She prefaces that the presentation will work through the scene with a few breaks for her to explain her exploration as a self-evaluating performance study.

As they progress through the scene, Rentfro notes that while Margaret harbors special hate for Richard III and is the first person to see him for what he is, she also feels a kinship with him due to some of their inherent similarities. Likewise, she sees a reflection of herself in Elizabeth, the “poor painted queen” she mocks. Rentfro moves on through Margaret’s exit, leaving the Yorkists behind to “muse why she’s at liberty”. She then relates her experience to that of Sarah Fallon, someone else who has seen Margaret all the way through her arc. She notes the experience as fairly rare, since so few companies perform the full tetralogy.

Jared Fair: “The Grieving Parent in Shakespeare and the Early Modern English Children’s Epitaph”

Fair begins by positing the opinions of Laurence Stone as to the emotional distance between parents and children in the early modern period, which he views as necessary due to the high child mortality, depicting these parents as detached and unemotional even upon the death of a child. Fair juxtaposes this with the ideas of David Cressy, who claims that early modern people were deeply emotional and loving, with a great capacity for tenderness both in their families and their communities. Cressy uses diaries and letters as examples that early modern people experienced intense emotions upon the death of a loved one.

Fair presents (through actors Jarom Brown and Dr. Julie Fox) epitaphs from the early modern period, which demonstrate the emotions felt by parents upon the death of a child. These epitaphs imagine sleep as a death, which Fair suggests as a coping mechanism to soften the blow. They also suggest that “death is not the end, that life continues for the child.” He presents an epitaph written by Ben Jonson on the death of a child actor, the first epitaph to so commemorate an actor. Jonson also wrote an epitaph when his own daughter died at 6 months and when his son died in the plague of 1603. Fair points out that Jonson describes himself as possessed by his own emotions; the epitaph serves as method to “loose” the bonds that hold him in thrall to grief. Fair then moves to considering Shakespeare’s experience with a child’s death, particularly in the proximity of the composition of King John to the death of his son Hamnet. Constance’s grief “is anticipatory”, upon Arthur’s disappearance. Fair argues that if Hamnet suffered an illness rather than a sudden death, Shakespeare’s own emotions may have informed this sense of anticipatory dread. He notes that Constance sinks into a suicidal depression, haunted by her son’s image, reminded of him everywhere. She later dies “in a frenzy”, inconsolable. Fair links this depiction of dramatic pain to Shakespeare’s personal experience as a parent.

For the rest of the Festival, see these posts:
Session 1
Session 3
Session 4