Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shakespeare at Mini University

This week, I'm at Mini University, an annual "lifelong learning" conference at Indiana University in Bloomington. We come to campus for a week, attending three different lectures each day from IU professors and other industry experts. That equals 15 fantastic nuggets of knowledge, on topics ranging from space exploration to Mexican immigration.

This year, two of my 15 sessions were related to Shakespeare -- perhaps because I wrote, on my evaluation last year, that I wanted "as much Shakespeare as possible."

My first session, taught by actress Fontaine Syer, was titled "Shakespeare in Performance," and she emphasized right away that she was an actress rather than a scholar. She discussed some of the things actors consider as they prepare for a Shakespeare role, including the need to discover new layers in the text -- especially because Shakespeare's work is "the most elastic text in the world," she said.

Another consideration: How to perform the soliloquies. Is the actor talking to himself, to a higher power, or directly to the audience? Should a soliloquy in Richard III, for example, be performed the same way as a soliloquy in Hamlet? Interesting question.

Here is my favorite quote from the session: "If you're in love with Shakespeare, you'll be in love with him for your whole life," Syer said. "The more you learn, the more there is to learn." (You and I already knew that, didn't we?)

Today I attended "Merchant of Venice and Early English Antisemitism" with professor Ellen MacKay. She started by describing the pervasive antisemitism in early modern England, including the "blood libel" claim that Jews killed young children and used their blood and bones in Passover matzoh. MacKay explained this rumor as a displacement of Catholics' own cannibalistic queasiness about transubstantiation (the communion wafer turning into the body of Christ).

Also at play: Many Christians condemned Jews for betraying Jesus based on the Passion narratives of that time. Jews were also condemned as usurers, even though they had been backed into that profession because Christians were forbidden to loan money with interest.

Shakespeare may also have been influenced by the Lopez plot, in which Queen Elizabeth's Jewish physician was (probably falsely) accused of trying to poison her and subsequently executed. And, Shakespeare was certainly familiar with Christopher Marlowe's Jew of Malta, which he both echoes and transcends in his own play.

(As Syer said yesterday in relation to the authorship controversies, "Marlowe? Come on. Who ever heard of a Marlowe theater festival?")

In the midst of pervasive antisemitism, Shakespeare created a character who reflected some Jewish stereotypes but refuted others. As we've already noticed, Shylock makes some pointed critiques of his Venetian (and, by extension, Elizabethan English) society. He does play the villain, but he is not wholly unsympathetic.

MacKay pointed out that Shakespeare could have made Shylock a more definitive villain by making his daughter, Jessica, more sympathetic. And yet we have a character who steals money and spends it wastefully, carelessly gives away mementos from her dead mother and elopes with a guy she barely knows. She claims that living with Shylock is terrible, but how much can we trust her?

Other things to think about: The nature of bonds and contracts in Merchant of Venice (friend to friend, spouse to spouse, parent to child, borrower to lender and servant to master) and the culpability of Venetian authorities, who easily could have found a way to release Antonio from his bond without Portia's intervention.

I'll be considering those questions -- and many more from my other classes this week -- until it's time for next year's Mini University. For more information on my non-Shakespeare classes this week, stop by my lifelong learning blog, That'll Teach Me.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why "Shakespeare in a Year" Matters

For weeks, I've been struggling with what to say in this "wrap up" post. After a year of Shakespeare immersion, I feel pressured to say something profound about what I've learned and how it has affected my life. A project like this has immense value; I know this deep down, but it's hard to explain.

The most obvious effect of the "Shakespeare in a Year" project is my (somewhat obnoxious) ability to use Shakespeare quotes in arguments. When my husband says, "We really don't need that," I can counter, "Oh, reason not the need! Our basest beggars are in the poorest things superfluous." Sometimes that argument even works.

Another obvious result of this project is that I am, unquestionably, more knowledgeable about Shakespeare and his work than I was before. When I first started attending the Stratford Shakespeare Festival five years ago, I was awed by the Bard-related conversations I heard around me at restaurants and theaters. (Yes, I'm a chronic eavesdropper.) Now, after this project, I feel right at home amidst these Shakespeare lovers.

In fact, when I attended Merry Wives of Windsor a few weeks ago, I was shocked to hear a woman behind me say, "Now, who wrote this play again?" Her companion must have looked at the playbill. "See here," she said, "it says Shakespeare." How that woman got to the play without knowing who wrote it, I'll never understand.

At intermission, the woman next to me said to her husband, "Huh, I thought Falstaff died offstage at the beginning." Wrong play, honey.

Now, I don't think these playgoers were representative of the festival crowd, which in general is quite well-informed. But those two incidents made me realize that I am now safely among the well-informed playgoers, which is a nice accomplishment on its own.

Some Shakespeare scholars are accused of "bardolatry," i.e., blind worship of the Bard. When I started this project, I was guilty as charged. Now, however, my perspective on Shakespeare is more balanced. Yes, I'm still awed by King Lear and Hamlet. On the other hand, I can say without reservations that Merry Wives of Windsor and Troilus and Cressida are terrible plays, that I really don't care for Shakespeare's narrative poetry, and that there is something deeply wrong with the so-called "problem plays." Shakespeare was a literary genius, but he wasn't infallible. Unlike some of the scholars whose work I read this year, I'm not going to make excuses for, or try to explain away, Shakespeare's mistakes.

In the end, why does it matter? After four centuries, why is Shakespeare's work still relevant, and what does it have to teach us? To answer, I must borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom: Shakespeare teaches us what it means to be human. More than any other author, he shows us the "mingled yarn, good and ill together" of our consciousness. With Shakespeare, as in life, there are never any easy answers.

It is bittersweet to know that I have read every extant Shakespeare work -- that I will never again hang on tenterhooks to know whether Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after or whether Benedick and Beatrice get together. I know all of the stories now, and there's something sad about that.

On the other hand, with a Shakespeare play, knowing the plot is just the beginning; the Bard "borrowed" most of his plots from other sources anyway. Now that we've read everything at least once, we now need a new goal: to mine the rich depths of every play, to continually explore new possibilities and perspectives.

This blog will remain active for that exact purpose: To chronicle my ongoing Shakespeare journey through re-readings of the play, exploration of scholarly analysis, and ongoing reviews of Shakespeare productions across the globe.

This summer, look for updates from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, the American Players Theatre in Wisconsin and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Join me on a week-long London theater extravaganza, which will include David Tennant's Much Ado About Nothing and Kevin Spacey's Richard III. And, join me at Oxford University for a week-long continuing-education course about Shakespeare's London.

We've come to the end of our "Shakespeare in a Year" project, but the real education is just beginning.