We recently saw Dr Erin Sullivan on BBC’s Shakespeare’s Mother: The Secret Life of a Tudor Woman, which is still available to watch on iPlayer.
Sullivan completed her MA at the Shakespeare Institute, where she currently serves as lecturer and fellow, and received her PhD from University College London. Her expertise as a literary scholar and cultural historian includes the history of medicine, particularly psychology and emotion. She contributes to and advises medical-themed journals and arts groups and edits the journal Cultural History.
Always interested in fostering public participation in academia, Sullivan has made advances in integrating media and distance learning into teaching. She also spearheaded ‘A Year of Shakespeare’ in 2012, a project which examined the relationship between Shakespeare and the London Olympics. Yearofshakespeare.com covered more than 80 events across the world, including the World Shakespeare Festival and the Globe to Globe Festival.
Sullivan has written and edited dozens of articles and books, such as A Year of Shakespeare: Re-living the World Shakespeare Festival, edited with BritGrad plenaries Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson, and Shakespeare on the Global Stage: Performance and Festivity in the Olympic Year (ed. with Prescott, 2015).
Forthcoming works include The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Early Modern Literature and Culture (ed. with Richard Meek, 2015) and Beyond Melancholy: Sadness and Selfhood in Renaissance England, in which Sullivan delves into intertwining issues of identity, religion, medicine, sadness, and contemporary literary writings.
Sullivan has twice appeared on Melvyn Bragg’s program ‘In Our Time.’ Listen to this fascinating discussion on The Tempesthere and to her talk about Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholyhere.
Yet another plenary appeared on television last week. Historian Michael Wood consulted Dr Erin Sullivan, a lecturer and fellow with the Shakespeare Institute, for her expertise on BBC Four’s documentary Shakespeare’s Mother: The Secret Life of a Tudor Woman. The program follows William Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden through personal and financial loss during an era of religious upheaval and the rise of a new kind of middle class.
The program is available to watch on BBC iPlayer for three more weeks. Go to 32:13 to hear Dr Sullivan discuss how Mary Arden might have dealt with grief after the deaths of her oldest children. Also check out the episode to see shots of the lovely Stratford-upon-Avon, where the BritGrad Conference will be held.
Last month, we profiled BritGrad plenary Chris Laoutaris, a lecturer and fellow at the Shakespeare Institute. Last week, he appeared on BBC’s The One Show in a segment about Lady Elizabeth Russell, the subject of his book Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe. Gyles Brandreth interviewed Dr Laoutaris in Playhouse Yard, a location central to the struggle between the “bard and the battle-axe.”
Russell, a strict Puritan, raised a petition against building a theatre in the upscale neighborhood of Blackfriars, London. Early modern NIMBYs who signed the petition included Lord Hunston, William Shakespeare’s patron, and Richard Field, his former publisher and boyhood friend.
Russell succeeded in pushing Shakespeare across the river where he wrote plays for the world-renowned Globe, only to return to Blackfriars after her death. Laoutaris actually suggests Shakespeare’s grudging admiration for his nemesis is evidenced by his creation of the Countess of Rousillon in All’s Well That End’s Well.
Get to know the fantastic plenaries of BritGrad 2015! Dr Chris Laoutaris, a lecturer and Birmingham Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, will be featured as the first in a series of brief speaker profiles.
Laoutaris received his undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate from University College London, where he taught and served as Renaissance Literature Course Convenor. He has lectured at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and is currently teaching at the Shakespeare Institute.
He relishes archival adventures and interdisciplinary explorations of early modern literature. His wide range of interests includes poetry (it’s in his blood, having descended from a line of poets), women’s history, translation, and Renaissance studies of anatomy. Other research areas involve early modern superstition and witchcraft, satire, death-ritual, Puritanism, monstrosity, and natural history.
You might have heard of Laoutaris’s book Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe (Penguin 2014), which has received numerous accolades. TheTelegraph and Observer listed it as one of the best books of 2014, and it made the shortlist for the Tony Lothian Prize for Biography. The Countess follows the formidable Elizabeth Russell, a lady who successfully opposed the creation of a Blackfriars playhouse in 1596, forcing William Shakespeare to adapt his writing for the Globe Theatre.
Laoutaris has also written Shakespearean Maternities: Crises of Conception in Early Modern England (Edinburgh University Press 2008) and is now working on the Birmingham Fellowship Project Team Shakespeare: The First Folio and the Men who Created the Shakespeare Legacy.
As expected from someone with such diverse expertise, Dr Laoutaris will speak on the fascinating topic of early modern robotics in Shakespeare and Spencer. Prepare for old-school cyborgs!
Soon, we will start profiling our fabulous plenary speakers. Until then, check out this upcoming student conference hosted by the Shakespeare International Studies Centre with the Geoffrey Chaucer Student Society and CULTUR(N)ED Student Society:
SHAKESPEARE RECREATED: NEW CONTEXTS, NEW INTERPRETATIONS
UNIVERSITY OF ŁÓDŹ, 22-23 APRIL 2015
Although the Bard appears to be the most researched author in the world, his works and his own person still inspire, puzzle and encourage heated debates. Our conference marks a special three-year period in the history of the appreciation of Shakespeare, with the 450th anniversary of his birth in 2014 and the 400th anniversary of his death in 2016. We would like to invite proposals for 20 minute presentations (followed up by approximately 10 minutes of discussion) in all areas of studies connected with the works of William Shakespeare. Suggested topics include but are not restricted to:
Shakespeare and popculture: comics, computer games, youtube, parodies, etc.;
Filming Shakespeare: Shakespeare on film and television, adaptations and appropriations,
representations of the playwright on screen;
Performing Shakespeare: staging Shakespeare then and now;
Polish explorations of Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s presence in Polish literature, film,
theatre and art;
Representations of (and inspirations by) Shakespeare’s works in world literature, film,
theatre and art;
Reviving Shakespeare: methods of popularizing Shakespeare in Britain and other countries;
Movements and disruptions within the Shakespearean canon: why some of his works are
more popular in certain moments in history or even gain a lasting popularity, while others
Elizabethan culture—society, economy, fashion—and the works of Shakespeare;
Apocryphal Shakespeare: plays attributed to Shakespeare, collaborative works and lost
Intertextual Shakespeare: Shakespearean references in modern works;
Shakespeare in the light of modern theories: Ecocriticism, Poststructuralism, Postcolonialism, New Historicism, Gender & Queer Theory, etc.
The conference will be held at the Faculty of International and Political Studies, University of Łódź, on 22-23 April 2015.
The following distinguished guests have confirmed their participation:
– prof. Virginia Mason Vaughan (University in Worcester, Massachusetts);
– prof. Alden T. Vaughan (University in Worcester, Massachusetts);
– dr Dmytro Drozdovsky (National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine).
We invite all undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students to participate. The conference will be held both in English and Polish. Abstracts of ca. 250 words should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 29 March 2015. Selected papers will be published. The registration fee is 30 PLN (10 EURO for overseas participants), which covers coffee breaks, conference materials and publication.
Do you consider yourself a hero? Well, it doesn’t matter as long as you can write about them. Shakespeare Jahrbuch, the Yearbook of the German Shakespeare Society, is calling for papers on Heroes and Heroines. Send them your work by March 31.
The 2016 volume of Shakespeare Jahrbuch will be a special issue devoted to “Heroes and Heroines”.
The editorial board of Shakespeare Jahrbuch invites essays on the following topics:
Shakespeare as a cultural/national hero
Heroes and heroines in Shakespeare’s plays
Heroism in Shakespeare’s plays
Tragic and comic heroes/heroines
Heroism and genre
Shakespeare and the heroes of early modern England
Shakespeare and (early modern, Romantic, Victorian, modern …) hero-worship
Actors and actresses as heroes/heroines
Heroes /heroines in Shakespeare adaptations
Papers to be published in the Shakespeare Jahrbuch should be formatted according to our style sheet.
Please send your manuscripts (of not more than 6,000 words) to the editor of the Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Prof. Dr. Sabine Schülting (email: sabine.schuelting(at)fu-berlin.de), by 31 March 2015.
Bring out your dead! On March 27, the University of York will celebrate Richard III’s reinternment with a workshop on… corpses. Submit your proposals for Over His Dead Body by January 5:
The legal battle between Leicester and York over the remains of Richard III
came to an end in May 2014 with a High Court ruling that the last
Plantagenet king is to be buried in Leicester Cathedral. This hard-fought,
sometimes acrimonious, dispute over bones found in a municipal car park
presented a fascinating spectacle; a modern, even postmodern, restaging of
the medieval myth of the king’s two bodies. The King is dead; long live
In this research workshop, York and Leicester put their differences aside –
or rather, bring them together in memory and celebration of the historical
figure who inspired one of Shakespeare’s most popular incarnations. To mark
the occasion of Richard’s reinterment on March 26, 2015, the Department of
English and Related Literature at York and the School of Modern Languages
at Leicester invite proposals for a research workshop that will explore the
significance of the Shakespearian dead body on page, stage and screen.
Participants will be invited to join the audience at a memorial lecture in
York Minster on March 26, followed by the research workshop at Kings Manor
– a seat of Tudor government in northern England – on Friday March 27.
Perhaps even more so than the ghost, the Shakespearian dead body raises
fundamental questions about space, place, and belonging and about the
powers that shape its medial and intermedial exhumations and reinterments.
We invite proposals for 15-minute presentations offering textual readings of
Shakespearian bodies, including but not only Richard, either in the
Shakespearian text, or in modern or contemporary production and
performance. Topics might include the following:
· ‘The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body’:
where do we find, or look for, the Shakespearian dead body?
·‘Look on her. Look, her lips’: the Shakespearian dead body as
‘sight’ or image; its embodiment in or by performance, and/or in other
·‘O gentlemen, see, see! Dead Henry’s wounds Ope their congealed
mouths and bleed afresh!’ What is at stake in the physical confrontation
of the dead with the living?
· What does the Shakespearian dead body lose, or gain, in translation or
·How have particular productions or performances used the Shakespearian
dead body to ask questions about the ‘world’ outside the play?
·What motivates contemporary artists, directors, translators and academics
to contribute to these re-incarnations?
·How is the Shakespearian dead body given value in non-cultural
institutions (the State, science, the press)?
Inter- or multi-disciplinary perspectives are welcome. Proposals featuring
abstracts of up to 250 words in English and a short biographical
description should be sent in word format (doc. or .docx) to both
organizers by January 5 2015.
Please put ‘Over His Dead Body proposal’ in the subject line of your
Nicole Fayard, University of Leicester: email@example.com
Erica Sheen, University of York: firstname.lastname@example.org
Greetings! While you’re eagerly awaiting BritGrad 2015, we will periodically alert you to relevant conferences and calls for papers. Let’s begin with The Halved Heart: Shakespeare & Friendship (with the looming submissions deadline of December 12):
For men and women in Shakespeare’s England, friendship was a relation that
spanned the exquisite virtue of amicitia perfecta and the everyday exchanges
of neighbourliness and commerce. A friend might be ‘another self’, but it was
essential to be wary of false friends or flatterers. The complex nature of early
modern friendship was a rich source of inspiration for early modern dramatists.
Globe Education at Shakespeare’s Globe is pleased to announce our spring
conference, The Halved Heart: Shakespeare and Friendship (Friday 17
– Sunday 19 April 2015), and we invite proposals for papers and panels.
Speakers may address the Renaissance fascination with the ethical demands
of idealised friendship, or the pragmatic reality of instrumental alliances,
as explored on stage. Papers might consider the theatre as a site of social
promiscuity, where spectators could be instructed in the arts (and hazards) of
friendship even as such relationships were enacted in the auditorium. Or they
might examine the overlap between friendship and eroticism, and the points of
conflict between friendship and other forms of social alliance such as marriage,
or the relationship between monarch and subject.
The conference will conclude on Sunday 19 April with a staged reading by a
company of Globe actors of The Faithful Friends (Anon., King’s Men, c.1614).
Proposals of no more than 300 words for papers (or panels of up to three
papers) may be submitted to Dr Will Tosh on email@example.com.
The deadline for submissions is Friday 12 December 2014.
The conference is for scholars and students but is open to all members of the
public who are interested in debates about early modern theatre and friendship.
When bookings open, visit the Globe’s website to purchase tickets. Who doesn’t want to learn about friendship? Just don’t go down the dark route taken by Valentine and Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
By all accounts, Day 3 of BritGrad started with an incredible panel by Alex Whiteley and Rebecca Fensome, taking the comparative study of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes and Despicable Me 1 and 2 to unparalleled heights of academic excellence. I wouldn’t know first-hand, because unfortunately despite the best of intentions I didn’t wake up until 9:05. The mention of these two papers is a testament to how much, despite the ravages of the BritGrad party, I was still hoping to see them.
The first plenary of the day saw Anna Marsland and David Rintoul discussing The Roaring Girl and The White Devil, two RSC productions on which they respectively worked as assistant director and actor. Much of the initial question-and-answer section drew attention to the questions of gender surrounding the plays and the Roaring Girls season itself – while Rintoul was surprised to realise that he may have only worked with six female directors over the course of his career (and up to fifty men), Marsland was confident that the theatrical landscape was beginning to change. She spoke about the unbelievable life of the real Moll Cutpurse, who escaped unwanted emigration on a boat to Virginia by swimming back to shore, and responded to comments on the more conventionally-feminine attire of Lisa Dillon’s Moll at the end of the play by emphasising how the character’s costume aesthetic has by this point spread across the whole sweep of the stuffy Victorian society in which Jo Davies had set the production. There was a genuine excitement to her comment that the upcoming White Devil cast featured eight female parts, one of which (Flaminia) has been cross-gendered; a decision which seems increasingly timely in the wake of performers who deconstruct traditional understandings of gender, from Lady Gaga to Conchita Wurst. The play is only just about to go into rehearsal, so it wasn’t only the audience who were keen to discover what effect this would have on the sexual politics of Webster’s tragedy.
Rintoul, meanwhile, displayed all the charm and grace one might expect from TV’s former Mr Darcy. Asked about the particularities of memorising and performing non-Shakespearean verse, he proposed a sustained and remarkably accurate analogy to jazz – from the steady beat underlying Marlowe, to the development of syncopation/less forcefully iambic lines, to the Charlie Parker-style improvisation of the Jacobean era. He also considered the play in relation to the RST run of Henry IV, pointing out parallels in the split between a rule-bound, conservative group of characters and the free play of London street-life, while emphasising the specifically Jacobean focus of The Roaring Girl on contemporary society. Both discussed the production’s relation to last year’s A Mad World, My Masters, and the Swan’s position as a space designed for non-Shakespearean drama: would Middleton sell in the main house. Surely it’s worth finding out?
Sadly it doesn’t seem as if the Swan will be staging Heywood’s Age plays any time soon, so it’ll be a while before we can find out exactly what’s meant in stage terms by the ‘strange fiery-workes’ which accompany the appearance of Medea in The Brazen Age. This was the subject of Callan Davies‘s fascinating paper, exploring the links between strangeness, spectacle, scepticism and intellectual uncertainty in early modern England. What use would a stage direction including the abstract term ‘strange’ be to a stage-hand trying to produce a visual image? asked Davies, before taking us on a tour of Renaissance oddity including ‘Strange News out of Kent’, a phenomenon represented today by this Daily Mirror article about massive rats. Far from mere tawdry shows, then, ocular wonder required intellectual engagement from an audience, and reflected a wider uncertainty over translating the material world into moral terms. Davies linked these occurences of strangeness to Montaigne’s doubts over the stability of perception, and the ethical stability this entailed, as explored in his essay ‘Of Massive Rats’.
Fans of Heywood should, at this point, be reminded of the Lizz Ketterer Trust Heywood Marathon, which began today at the Shakespeare Institute with the intention of reading and recording all 37 of the plays attributed to him. Regardless of what Heywood’s spectacles ‘meant’ to their original audience, the role of the visual and ephemeral on the Renaissance stage has been consistently ignored by scholars looking for the sources of Shakespeare, argued Kim Gilchrist in a thought-provoking, original speculation about the ‘imbecilic’ works encountered by early modern playgoers. Gilchrist made the case for what has been in the dry transcription of Queen’s Men plays such as The Famous Victories of Henry V, presenting the complex, metatheatrical improvisation of clown-actors like Richard Tarlton as a tradition which has, by its very nature, disappeared from literary history. Nonetheless, the work of this first acting celebrity – known for his playing extempore - must have been assimilated and transformed by Shakespeare, just as much as that of literary forebears such as Marlowe. While the Prologue to Tamburlaine was a direct challenge to the rhyming and jigging of this kind of theatre, its echoes survived even as they could not be written down. Gilchrist’s own acting was able to give us a speculative flavour of what Tarlton and his fellows might have been doing; the mechanical dolphin which Greenblatt suggests might have provided Shakespeare’s introduction to theatrical spectacle sadly remained unreconstructed.
These issues were picked up (dolphin notwithstanding) in the final plenary session of the day, and of BritGrad 2014. Dr Will Sharpe and Dr Peter Kirwan demonstrated considerable powers of off-the-cuff discussion as they introduced us to the theory and practice behind their recent co-authored project on the collaborative plays attributed to Shakespeare. Their volume takes in not only Arden of Faversham, Double Falsehood and Sir Thomas More, in which Shakespeare’s hand has regularly been suspected, but also The London Prodigal and Thomas Lord Cromwell, two plays in which they found no evidence of Shakespeare’s own writing, but historical attributions which made it clear that they were first received in a Shakespearean context, perhaps due to the influence of the King’s Men’s house dramatist on the company’s wider output – collaboration is never just a case of sharing billing. Even the first Folio fudges the issue of collaboration, implying that authorship in the period didn’t mean exactly the same thing as ‘who wrote what’.
Sharpe and Kirwan expressed their hope for the demise of the circular argument that goes: Shakespeare could never have written this;this can’t be by Shakespeare, because it isn’t good enough. They also explained the logic behind presenting the whole of each play, rather than excerpting the potentially Shakespearean passages: not only are many of these collaborative works worth reading in their own right, but the mechanical aspect of stylometrics makes it difficult to declare with 100% certainty which author wrote a single scene. Given the amount of French in Henry V, most computer systems would confidently assert that Shakespeare had never laid eyes on it. Despite the quality of some of these plays, however, Sharpe wearily noted the tendency of media coverage to focus on the novelty of new Shakespearean attributions, rather than the actual contents of the work – an awareness of which had to underlie the presentation of the book itself, to make it a viable commercial proposition. Kirwan argues that the desire to ‘own it all’ – everything Shakespeare ever wrote – is part of a modern consumerist mentality, but also speculated on the Internet as a factor contributing to a resurgence of interest in anonymity. As questions from the audience made clear, however, the value of the volume lies not least in its making available, in clear, clean and lucid texts, plays which might now be used by actors and theatre companies, extending the relatively narrow scope of the early modern drama which is staged today – and in discussing those works, as Sharpe wryly commented, in ‘essays that people can read.’
And perhaps it’s fitting to conclude with a comment on accessibility, in a conference which we the BritGrad team hope serves as an entry point to conference attendance for a generation of postgraduate students.
More photos, courtesy of Ronan Hatfull, can be found at the BritGrad Facebook page. We look forward to seeing you all next year!
‘It’s slightly blurred, but you probably don’t want to look too closely at a crow with a penis at 9:15am.’ As opening lines to the second days of academic conferences go, Professor Ewan Fernie‘s contribution is going to take some beating. In his plenary session, ‘Lighten Our Darkness’, Fernie established a series of far-reaching connections between Shakespeare, Ted Hughes, Freud, Adorno, and the philosopher John Moriarty. He evoked the ways in which literature and criticism, in attempting to develop a ‘pathology of cultural communities’ to diagnose the discontents of our civilisation, have frequently flirted with the dark forces which that civilisation necessarily represses.
But while acknowledging the terrible energy of barbaric impulses, Fernie also flagged up the dangers of this atavism: despite the suffering such restrictions have placed upon us, the consequences of their removal might well be worse, and the ‘low-stakes game’ of academia makes it all too easy to imagine a benign (rather than brutal) liberation from a distant armchair. The paper also took in minotaurs and boars and sharks (oh my!) and, in its focus on the evolutionary similarity between the latter and the human form, left me wondering both if I was writing this blog with the fin of a shark, and if there was an untapped market for a new Chinese delicacy: academic’s hand soup.
In the first panel session I attended, Ronan Hatfull considered the modern afterlives of Ophelia, coming to the conclusion that in some adaptations, the role she takes on makes her more Hamlet than Hamlet (in Hamlet). Hatfull’s key text – Park Chan-Wook’s film Stoker - revisits a tradition dating back to Heinrich Muller’s Hamletmachine, inwhich the silenced Ophelia returns as a harbinger of intense violence. Remarking on the surprisingly small number of lines given to the character (as few as Osric), he suggested that Ophelia’s apparent malleability has allowed subsequent writers to use her to throw Hamlet’s inertia into relief, and paradoxically, to reclaim the stereotypically masculine role which the Prince refuses to fulfil.
If the deviant ‘popular Shakespeare’ which emerges from Hamlet’s refraction through its minor characters (which I also discussed in my own paper, on singing gravediggers, later in the day) is a phenomenon with which the defenders of ‘correct Shakespeare’ are loath to engage, ‘Star Wars Shakespeare’ would send them running to the nearest weeping brook. John Curtis playfully discussed how Ian Doescher’s mash-up brings a new meeting to ‘alienating Shakespeare’. Reliant on multiple in-jokes and an almost-too-regular verse style, it might nonetheless offer an oblique new opportunity for presenting the texts in the classroom. In the spirit of Curtis’s paper, I propose a production of ‘Palpatine, King of Britain’.
Sara-Marie Westh returned to Earth (or something like it) with a free-wheeling exploration of ‘Starbucks Shakespeare’, taking in a range of surprising similarities and differences between the culture of the early modern playhouse and the modern coffee house. She described how Starbucks, like the theatre and like the conference room, is a constructed space which determines the experience we have and the kinds of stories we hear. Westh also commented on how the branding of both a disposable Starbucks cup and an ‘immortal’ Shakespeare play functions as a value-added tag, no matter what each ‘contains’, and reflected on the changing cultural position of coffee – from luxury rarity to ephemeral daily occurence – and vice versa, and in the case of theatre.
The second plenary speaker of the day, Professor Grace Ioppolo, shared her considerable experience in rediscovering and publicising the ephemeral products of Renaissance culture (though I didn’t catch her coffee preference). Ioppolo gave delegates a whistle-stop tour through the field of manuscript studies, pointing the way towards the most useful physical and digital collections. Praising the recent trend for digitising manuscript resources, she also stressed the importance for early career researchers of establishing a strong online presence, to track the impact of research and to take advantage of funding opportunities in the growing field of digital humanities. Returning to the written page, she drew our attention to the secret treasures lurking in the pages of commonplace books (where Donne and Jonson were the most quoted writers), and the presentation and commission copies given to aristocratic lovers of the theatre, many of whom were amateur playwrights themselves. Ioppolo also covered the chequed history of the documents assembled in the Henslowe-Alleyn Papers in the posession of Dulwich College, and shared stories of optimistic forgers whose continuing attempts to produce a ‘Shakespeare manuscript’ indicate a lingering need for a biographical authorial presence.
Kate Alexander, in the day’s second panel, also spoke of the interconnectedness of creative work and the physical body. Her paper aimed to establish an underlying musicality for Lady Macbeth, a character in a play with little room for melody who she admitted ‘scared’ her as an actress. Alexander’s creative experiments, in the vein of Antony Sher’s character sketches, showed one way for a performer with their own artistic capabilities to get under the skin of a character. How do you possess a role – especially a role that puts you in touch with the dark areas to which Fernie alluded – without a role possessing you? Alexander spoke of Lady Macbeth’s own role-playing, before demonstrating three scenes where musical awareness – from a schmaltzy waltz, as the new Queen sweet-talks the Scottish court, to a confused fugue where two overlapping minds fail to fully meet, to the ‘atonal aria’ of ‘Out, damned spot’ – was useful for an actress inhabiting the character’s mindset.
King Lear has been notoriously difficult to interpret musically – a challenge Chris Gleason spared himself in a paper reflecting on the human identity of one of Shakespeare’s most towering characters. The recent spate of Lear productions has given fresh urgency to the questions which the part demands. How old should an actor be before taking on the part? Simon Russell Beale is 53, Ian McKellen was 68, and David Garrick only 24. How old is too old? And why is the character considered to be such an ultimate test of talent? Though some have pointed to the range the actor must display across his eleven scenes, while still maintaining a single trajectory, Gleason speculated that the answer lay in the simplicity of the tragedy. The seeming mundanity of Lear’s initial errors in judgement – unlike, say, Macbeth’s – suggests arrogance and stubbornness on a domestic level which need not have such shattering personal or political consequences. The intensity of the tragedy, with its roots in a ‘family row’, is partly due to its intimacy: as Olivier, who was not a success in the part, once commented, the mad King is ‘like all of us, really’.
Professor Simon Palfrey took an even closer look at Lear – not the King himself, but a crucial moment in the play between Gloucester and Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom at the edge of a cliff that turns out to be more existential than literal. Reducing the two characters to archetypes – the blind and the naked – Palfrey put a single moment of play-life under the critical microscope, and found it almost impossibly teeming with life. He discussed the opposed, ‘competing modalities’ of what Edgar-Tom and Gloucester say will happen next, and the bewildering array of lives and perspectives gestured at in Edgar’s speech: each crow, beetle and fisherman independently existing on the edge of life, drawing the reader or auditor’s perception back and forth across the text’s vertiginous line-breaks. Pointing out the ‘unnumbered pebble’ invisible from the height of the speaker who identifies it, Palfrey imagined twenty-one possible intellectual and theatrical ‘blockings’ for the scene, as varied as the stones upon the shore. These proposed, simultaneous alternatives took in the workings of blindness, fatherhood, decorum, life and death, reality and fiction, as they operated across the lines and the cue-spaces between them – and if these meanings seem too dense to be covered in a few sentences, spare a thought for the BritGrad publicity team’s Charlotte Horobin, valiantly live-tweeting Palfrey’s discussion on the edge of her seat.
The same decorum that prevents Edgar intervening in his father’s attempted suicide also inhibits me from discussing my own paper, so I’ll move on to the delegate with whom I shared my panel. Hester Bradley’s ‘The Taming of the Tunes’ started from the concept of ‘incidental Shakespeare’, finding Shakespeare where his presence might be unanticipated or even unintended. She looked at the Shakespearean resonances of recent popular music figures, from the Ricardian Johnny Rotten onwards, and considered the treatment of the Shrew’s Katherine in songs by, among others, Franz Ferdinand and the film ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’. Broken up by YouTube excerpts and the occasional bout of live dancing, Bradley’s paper viewed Katherine breaking a lute over her tutor’s head as a proto-rock’n’roll gesture, and positioned the figure as a node for the cultural discourse surrounding feminism, sexuality,aggression and the ‘bad reputation’ of performers from Courtney Love to Miley Cyrus. Neither of whom, unfortunately, as far as I can tell, were played at the BritGrad party later that evening.