The final day of BritGrad began with a panel on tyranny. Nicole Mennell (University of Sussex) gave her paper “‘So barbarous and so beastly’: Animal Imagery, Tyranny and Dehumanisation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Titus Andronicus“. She spoke about characters transforming into literal and metaphorical animals. Tyrants are bestial in their cruelty, but because they possess rationality, they are even worse than beasts. Hunters also become predatory creatures in pursuit of prey. Human victims, as well, can metamorphose, such as Titus‘s Lavinia, who is compared to a doe and suffers several mutilations.
Polly Jeanetta Brown (The Shakespeare Institute) questioned whether Prospero of The Tempest and Dumbledore in Harry Potter were trusted tyrants. The answer was a resounding yes. The “benevolent” Dumbledore fits Plato’s “philosopher king” ideal, a tyrant for the greater good. He also uses cunning to keep the peace in a way that would make Machiavelli proud. Prospero can be seen as a Nietzschean figure, a “good man” who alters others to become more like him.
After that discussion of disturbing violence and sinister old men, Marie Ryan, Molly Lambert, and Octavia Finch (all from The Shakespeare Institute) talked about adapting Shakespeare for their Creative Practice course. They discussed their process of selecting plays and conflating characters. The group delegated writing but edited the piece as an ensemble for consistency. Lambert mentioned the struggles with creating effective but washable fake blood. Then the three performed ten minutes of their hour-length play, about a theatre company performing Much Ado About Nothing but living Othello behind the scenes.
Ronan Hatfull (University of Warwick) also presented “‘This Blasted Heath’: A Critical-Creative Exploration of William Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett and Cormac McCarthy Through Dystopia”. He showed a video and shared poetry as well as sections from his and his fellow students’ post-apocalyptic play, which drew from Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, and Cormac McCarthy.
Our final plenary talk featured both Laurie Maguire and Felix Budelman with Oxford University: “Audience Responses to Ambiguity in Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and Two Greek Tragedies”. They used questionnaires to determine the alertness of audiences to ambiguities in theatre. The two found several kinds of audience reactions. For example, Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers revealed what they called The Oleanna Effect, named after David Mamet’s play. Audiences were split on whether one character in a masked production was faking grief. The scene was ambiguous in a way that provoked disagreements, but audience members generally didn’t perceive that ambiguity, as they were convinced they were right.
Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale revealed The Janus Effect, in which the audience appeared to perceive ambiguity regarding whether Leontes had reason to be jealous based on his wife’s behavior. Half of the audience was convinced one way or the other, while the other half genuinely didn’t know or selected multiple answers. Othello involved The Octopus Effect. Rather than focusing on one motive for Iago’s manipulations, members selected multiple compatible statements.
The last panel I attended on the last day was a blessedly lighthearted session on clowns. Rebecca Agar (University of Ulster) started by examining “The Use of ‘Low Comedy’ in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth“. This play, written around 1587, contained popular characters which were not featured in its historical sources. Agar wanted to look beyond the comic relief of the lower class characters to see the potential social commentary in the play’s humor.
Kim Gilchrist’s (Roehampton University) “‘How mad a sight it was to see Dametas’: The Arcadia, Tarlton, and Sidney’s escaping clown” analysed Philip Sidney’s views of clowning as found in the Arcadia. Gilchrist also looked at physical irregularity in clowns as well as Arcadia‘s influence on the play Mucedorus, noting the similarities between the latter’s clown Mouse and the character Dametas. Gilchrist determined that Sidney’s anti-clown views and the interaction between popular and more elitist texts were far more complex than has been accepted.
Finally, Charles Morton (The Shakespeare Institute) concluded the panel with “Your all-licensed fool”: Will Sommers, Robert Armin, and King Lear’s Fool”. He drew connections between Henry VIII’s beloved jester Will Sommers and the Fool in King Lear. Robert Armin, for whom the Fool’s role was likely written, wrote a book “Fool upon Fool”, which included a section on Sommers. Morton also regaled us with obscure and hilarious jokes told by Sommers, the most successful of which (then and now) was a fart joke.
The day was almost done. Richard O’Brien gave the closing remarks and presented two Liz Ketterer Memorial Awards for the best abstracts. First place went to Harry Ford (University of Exeter) for his “‘Set down your venerable burden’: piggybacking in Shakespeare’s As You Like It and the medieval outlaw tradition”, and 2nd went to Sam Meekings (Lancaster University) and his “Views from the Beargarden”. After a hearty round of applause for our hardworking BritGrad Chair, we relaxed and chatted in the Institute garden for the closing reception, which involved eating and drinking delicious refreshments.
BritGrad 2015 was filled with funny and fascinating talks from seasoned speakers and students alike. For some, this was their first conference. The papers were uniformly engaging but touched on a wide variety of early modern subjects: gender and sexuality, metre and poetry, playhouse culture–the list goes on.
A big thank you to the BritGrad 2015 committee for working so hard to put this together, to the stunning plenaries who shared with us their remarkable expertise, and to the students, the very reason for this conference’s existence. Until next year! May there be many more BritGrads.