At the end of the first day of BritGrad 2014, we’ve learnt many things. Among them: that people in the Renaissance didn’t really understand how dogs’ legs worked; that some theatre critics in the 1980s were remarkably racist; and how best to insult a man called Jake in the 17th century.
Professor David Crystal kicked things off with a rambunctious whistle-stop tour through the development to date of the Original Pronunciation movement, and the possibilities to come. Gleefully using a whole range of accents (if you’ve got it, flaunt it), he shared stories of the responses of OP audiences who were delighted to hear people speaking Shakespeare ‘like them’; even if their accents were wholly different, the difference from RP modern English was what made the performance feel accessible and fresh. Aided by Hilary Crystal and by a couple of bawdy gestures, David elucidated some risqué jokes that have been lost to modern ears, and suggested that the familiarity of OP might have been linked to the spread of early modern English around the burgeoning global trade network. Difficulties for actors include the fact that a lack of hierarchy across dialects make it harder to convey class distinctions. And the positives? It seems to make plays at least ten minutes shorter…
The first panel session I attended presented Shakespeare as the missing link between Churchill and Aslan. Sarah Waters, armed with an insanely-detailed pie chart, demonstrated the deep Shakespearean underpinning of C S Lewis’s Narnia series. Focusing on ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ as a modern fantasy twist on ‘The Tempest’, she showed how Prospero informed its portrayal of a magician who sleeps in the afternoon and exerts what would now come across as colonial power over the enslaved Dufflepuds in a benign and doddering manner which Caliban might well have preferred.
Louis Osborne complemented her paper with a brief dip into the use of Shakespeare’s imagery of oceans around the same historical period. His talk drew on a range of plays and speeches, including Churchill’s, to illustrate how the British political establishment has turned, especially in times of war, to a Shakespearean sense of the ‘sceptred isle’ of Great Britain, where the sea appears as a natural barrier to the threat of foreign invasion.
The conservative rhetoric underlying this political trend stood in contrast to the reading of ‘The Tempest’ offered by Martin Young in a later panel session. Young placed Gonzalo’s speech in 2.1, which envisages a utopian society where natural abundance has eliminated the need for ‘sovereignty’ or ‘labour’, in the context of evolving ideas of political economy, suggesting that critics have dismissed the issues raised by his vision by relating it solely to its source in Montaigne, or to a historical concept of the Golden Age. Citing four separate Marxes, he suggested that instead we attend to the role of labour under Prospero’s sway, and how this relates to the ideas Gonzalo struggles to articulate about the possibilities of social change.
Professor Tony Howard‘s plenary session also addressed the evolving social make-up of an island kingdom (Britain itself), looking at the experiences of black and Asian actors taking part in British Shakespeare performance from Paul Robeson onwards. His research suggested that audiences from a range of minority backgrounds identified with non-white performers such as Sidney Poitier, even if they were of different ethnicities. There was an interesting parallel with David Crystal’s realisation that audiences of all accents were pleased that OP offered the chance to hear ‘people like us’ performing Shakespeare. Howard drew on local examples from the RSC – where many black and Asian Shakespeare actors made their first appearances, despite ingrained resistance – and from Birmingham Rep, a theatre which has changed over time to meet the needs of a multi-ethnic city. But he also indicated that progressive, diverse programming was a possibility in 1948, the year of the last London Olympics, even as it sat alongside the more reactionary entertainment of the minstrel show in the BBC radio schedules.
The following panel in the Hall featured Martin Young, Malte Unterweg and Iman Sheeha. The first paper related Shakespeare’s tragedies to the concept of Fortune in once-popular medieval texts, such as Lydate’s ‘Fall of Princes’; Unterweg found a wealth of reference across the canon to the constantly-turning wheel which was felt to control the rise and fall of the powerful, and lay behind the tragic fate of Shakespearean rulers such as Julius Caesar and Richard II. Sadly he did not speculate on how representatives of insurgent power such as the future Henry VII would have performed on this iconic Bradley Walsh game show:
Sheeha spoke about a different understanding of power, showing how the resistance of the appalled servants in Middleton’s A Yorkshire Tragedy might have been perceived in the wider context of the Church and State’s teachings on tyrannicide. She sketched out the analogy between household and commonwealth, and explained how even a subject’s rebellion against rulers (domestic or political) who were felt to be monstrous or evil could be discouraged if their status was lawful, and thus endorsed by God. Whether or not it is justifiable to refuse to endure tyranny, it certainly isn’t safe, as the fate of the servants in this play makes abundantly clear.
After lunch, Dr Richard Buckley delivered a plenary on a subject which would have provided Renaissance audiences with a masterclass in practical tyrannicide, if only they’d been looking in the right carpark. His first-hand account of the dig for the bones of Richard III was as gripping as archaeology gets outside of a Dan Brown novel, and certainly featured more intense pelvic damage than the average episode of Time Team. Switching between the history of Leicester and its most famous long-term resident to the history of the excavation itself, Buckley gave the impression that the survival of the remains was a one-in-a-million chance – they were nearly crushed by a Victorian outhouse – which made it all the more surprising that the team had apparently come across them by lunchtime on the first day of the dig. Concluding with the now-familiar reconstruction of Richard’s face, Buckley updated us on the medical research into the last Plantagenet King’s scoliosis – although few people would have known he had it, and it didn’t impede his ability to fight or ride a horse, it seems there was a grain of truth behind Shakespeare’s myth-making. So that’s helpful.
The day closed with another round of panel sessions. Unwittingly, I chose a pairing of papers which revived one of the most bloody and savage oppositions of early modern culture, in a panel which should really have been titled ‘BEAR VS DOG!!!’ Gerard Sargent presented a compelling portrait of Timon of Athens as a character who, even in exile, is also looking back over his shoulder to the society he has turned his back on. Conceiving of himself and his new world as bestial, he nonetheless cannot resist elements of the human creeping into his animal imagery. Sargent suggested that this self-division between man and beast is what drove Shakespeare and Middleton to add nineteen references to dogs which are entirely lacking in the play’s known source texts. I wonder if Middleton had just got a new puppy, but I suppose I’ll defer to the expert.
Hannah Hickman bravely countered nineteen dogs with a single bear: the exit-pursuer of A Winter’s Tale which has come to stand both as one of the most familiar and most perplexing images in all of English literature. Hickman speculated on the problems of genre generated by having a man in a bear suit tearing someone apart mere scenes before the similarly-attired ‘men of hair’ who perform the jolly satyrs’ dance at the Bohemian sheep-shearing festival. But if the bear isn’t just funny, what is it? Her response took in folk mythology, Ovid’s tale of Calisto, and a novel thought: a cipher for Hermione, the fiercely-protective mother who spends much of the play in secret hibernation.
Until tomorrow, friends – bear down for BritGrad.