‘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, in which 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.