This past weekend was a fabulous blur of dynamic plenaries, informative panels, and lovely weather. Shakespeare Institute Director Michael Dobson gave the opening remarks with his usual wit, expressing wry confidence in the lineup and emphasizing his lack of involvement in this student-run conference. BritGrad Chair Richard O’Brien did accept responsibility for the proceedings and welcomed everyone to the first day of BritGrad.
The Shakespeare Institute’s Dr Erin Sullivan spoke first on ‘Shakespeare, Sadness, and the History of Emotions.’ A former BritGrad Chair, Sullivan shared memories and reflected on the number of lasting academic relationships she made at the conference. She went on to discuss the history of emotions, an inherently interdisciplinary field which has faced challenges over the years due to its perceived subjectivity. From Roland Barthes to historian Barbara Rosenwein, scholars have posed theories about how to study the history of emotions.
Sullivan’s particular interest lies in Renaissance sadness in its manifold forms. There was an ambiguity about sadness; for example, sadness over the world’s sins could be salutary, while other kinds of melancholy could be unhealthy and even dangerous. She used Antonio from The Merchant of Venice as an example of a character whose identity seems intertwined with melancholy and noted that she was drawn to Shakespearean characters whose emotions differed from the norm.
Ben Naylor with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama was the second plenary of the day. He emphasized the importance of fostering a relationship between academics and theatre and directed an interactive analysis of Hamlet, act 1, scene 1, from a performance perspective. This close reading involved questioning what every line could tell audience members who were completely unfamiliar with the play. The scene is full of what Stephen Greenblatt called “strategic opacity.” Even the first lines, “Who’s there?” and “Nay answer me,” create immediate conflict and keep the audience at the edge of their seats.
Naylor pointed out the significance of Italian (Bernardo) and Roman (Marcellus) names, Wittenberg and its chief association with Protestantism, and possible stage directions found in the text. Shakespeare expertly alters the mood throughout the scene, particularly when Horatio and company sit down to hear a story about the ghost. Seeing actors sit, the audience begins to relax and let their guards down. The ghost suddenly interrupts story time and the audience’s complacency. This back and forth analysis between Naylor and his students normally goes on for four hours, which, based on his talk, surely fly by.
Our final plenaries Dr Paul Edmondson with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Dr Paul Prescott with the University of Warwick discussed their project Shakespeare on the Road. Prescott was fascinated with the number of Shakespeare festivals in the United States which made very little if any profit, performing Shakespeare on the cheap tickets or for free. He and Edmondson celebrated the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth by visiting 14 of these 200 or so festivals and seeing 44 performances and 22 plays, beginning and ending with The Winter’s Tale. They also conducted 150 interviews.
This massive, illuminating, and exhausting trip from coast to coast included a foray into Stratford, Canada, as well as the Harlem Shakespeare Festival, the Amerindian Shakespeare Initiative, and Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, which required the cast to set up and take down sets for every performance. The Pauls found that the American festivals tended to be conscientious about diverse casting. This decision was not to be confused with “non-traditional casting,” a term which bothered some due to its suggestion that actors of colour hadn’t been involved with Shakespeare in the past.
After a wonderful day of plenaries and panels (stay tuned for more information about student papers), delegates had the option to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello, featuring Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as the company’s first black Iago.
Thank you for joining us for Day 1 of BritGrad 2015! More summaries are coming soon.