Contested and Eccentric: Futures of Sexuality in Shakespeare Studies
Various methods—psychoanalytic, deconstructive, feminist, queer, materialist—have proven conducive for illuminating sexuality in Shakespeare’s texts. In this talk, I reflect on my own scholarly practice to explore the purchase of a historicist approach to early modern sexuality. I focus on two critical concepts central to my historicist practice: contestation and eccentricity. By contestation I refer to the insight that sexual meanings in Shakespeare’s drama and culture are not given by a particular discourse or institution, but are actively produced through contingent, context-specific, struggles and debates. Eccentricity refers to the importance of decentering Shakespearean representations of sexuality, positioning them in relation to the representations of other dramatists and to unfamiliar or newly discovered cultural artifacts. In addition to reassessing my own scholarship via these concepts, I will address recent developments in sexuality studies that push our understanding of sexual contestation and eccentricity in productive directions. Finally, I will consider how my current research, which draws from affect studies, represents a particularly intriguing path in the transformation of sexuality studies both through and beyond historicist models.
Facts and Ghosts: Historicism, Anachronism, and Empiricism in Shakespearean Textual Studies
In this talk, I discuss two book projects I am currently completing or trying to complete and reflect on my own approach to Shakespeare as a textual scholar and historian of the book. The two books differ in their primary methodologies (quantitative and qualitative), in the historical periods they engage (early modern and the longue duree from 1603 to the present), and in their attitude towards historicism itself. One is a large-scale study of popularity in the book trade, Print, Plays, and Popularity in Shakespeare’s England (co-written with Alan Farmer), which relies on statistical analysis of the STC in an attempt to discover certain facts about book publication in early modern England. The other is Hamlet after Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text, which deals with the aftermath of the discovery of the only copy of Q1 them known in 1823 and which challenges certain “facts” that we think we know about Hamlet. Hamlet after Q1 suggests that our dominant models of historicism and periodization have failed to account for “uncanny” texts like Q1—a text that exists simultaneously in two different historical moments (1603 and 1823) and that is anachronistic or out of time by traditional historicist standards. By meditating on how I came to write these two books, and the unexpected turns they took, I hope to suggest some productive ways we might think about current historicist work in our field, book historical work in particular, as it intersects with other fields that have attempted to transform our models of history, queer theory especially, and with digital humanities and what we might call the “new empiricism.”
French Shakespeare, and a Different Historicism
My current project is entitled French Shakespeare. It seeks to show how in the late 1580s and 1590s, England was particularly obsessed with all things French—French politics, French history, the French language, French literature, French culture. This was a period when France was in turmoil; when Anglo-French relations were particularly crucial; when England was watching events in France with great interest; when England got militarily involved on French soil; and when England played host to a vast number of French immigrants and refugees. Shakespeare, I argue, along with many other writers, responds, in repeated and varied ways, to this obsession.
The project, like most of my work, is historicist in orientation. But with French Shakespeare, I wish to put pressure on the nature of that historicism. Much historicist work of the past two decades has been scrupulously concerned to put Shakespeare back in historical context—but the contexts that have been explored have been quite prescriptive. Historicist Shakespeare exists in the context of his life trajectory, his theatre, his printing and publication, local geographies (London, Warwickshire), and national concerns (England). I’m interested in exploring what it means to put Shakespeare in geographical contexts that are not traditionally seen as Shakespearean (France, Paris, Rouen). And, as I’m increasingly discovering, by changing the geographical context, I’m beginning to apprehend a different historicity—that when Shakespeare plays with France in his plays, he is also playing with historical time in presentist ways, and ultimately challenging our current notions of “historicism.”
Do American Students Need Global Shakespeares?
Much recent research on intercultural Shakespeare refines or even rejects binary models of thinking about Shakespeare appropriation. Many in the scholarly community understand, for instance, that the Prospero-and-Caliban model of postcolonial interpretation will not serve: it perpetuates the myth of original and copy, reinscribes the very center-periphery relationship it hopes to challenge, and is often not the most productive way of approaching a “local” rewriting of a Shakespearean text. However, discredited though it may be, the binary model continues to structure many of our activities, particularly teaching and theatre festival planning. As humans, we have two eyes, accustomed to considering only two objects at a time. As teachers, we often find it easy and fruitful to show our students Text B and ask how it appropriates and revises Text A. In the classroom, we have limited global expertise and still more limited time.
In an effort to bridge the gap between research and pedagogy, my presentation will share some specific techniques for making students at US universities – whatever their linguistic, cultural, disciplinary, and academic backgrounds and interests – grasp the concept of regionally specific interpretive traditions around Shakespeare. These approaches, thought experiments, and assignments can help students engage in a rich and multifaceted way with Shakespeare adaptations and rewritings. They can help students learn more about different historical periods and parts of the world. Better yet, by illustrating how a work of art responds to certain contexts, deploys certain intertexts, and conveys certain subtexts to its intended audiences, this expanded pedagogy can help them appreciate how and why any artist including Shakespeare – brings works of art into being.
Jean E. Howard
The New Theater History: Collaboration and Innovation in Early Modern Theater Culture
At one point we talked about theater history in terms of dramatists: Shakespeare, Lyly, Marlowe, Webster, Middleton, Shirley. That was how I learned about Renaissance plays in graduate school. They were products of individual minds, and you could study the defining characteristics of various playwrights. This always seemed not so much wrong as limiting because, as Gombrich taught us, art is made from art, not just from individual genius or sensibility. So I have spent a lot of my career studying dramatic genres, not considered as ideal types but as forms of textual affiliation constructed in time. Along the way, I/we have learned a lot more about the forms of collaboration in early modern theater culture that further question the primacy of the individual author: we have learned about how plays are transformed in the playhouse and the print shop by agents as different as censors, compositors, actors, and scribes. Recent developments in theater history are taking this work in new directions as scholars such as Tiffany Stern show how collaboration functioned through the medium of the plot or how songs were added or fell away from playtexts and performances because of changes in the personnel available in a company, and as other scholars are focusing on the particular features of individual acting companies and on the strategies of emulation and refashioning that furthered innovation in a quickening market. I am using this new work in a book called The Invention of Tragedy on the Early Modern English Stage in which I argue that what came to be known as Renaissance tragedy was produced by the features of a particular theater culture. I look at forms of expertise that were honed by the fast pace of innovation demanded by the theatrical market, at experiments with affective technologies produced within specific theater companies, and at the accretion of the theatrical memes we retrospectively associate with Renaissance tragedy as theater practitioners of every stripe added their expertise in a collective project that was also, not so paradoxically, marked by a quest for distinction.
Shakespeare and Revenge: or, Can We Swallow the Historicized with the Scientific?
Recent studies by neuroscientists have demonstrated that exacting revenge, and even anticipating exacting revenge, stimulates the dorsal striatum, the portion of the brain “that rats will work furiously to stimulate electrically” because it is the region “involved in enjoyment or satisfaction” such as experiencing “pleasant tastes.” If revenge is always sweet, if humans are wired to experience revenge as satisfying, do historicized readings of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies have any validity? Scientific findings, after all, are treated as close to universals as anything else is in our age: these findings are treated by many as gospels. So how do (or should) we position scientific findings within our historicized readings of Shakespeare’s plays?
W. B. Worthen
Shakespeare Performance Studies: Performing Postprint Shakespeare
To seize Shakespeare performance today is to ask how Shakespeare has become an instrument for exploring the continually contested parameters of performance, the boundaries between writing and doing, between onstage and offstage acting, between literature, theatre, and other technologies of mediated performance. Rather than taking Shakespeare Performance Studies as the linear declension it typically represents in Shakespeare studies (especially in “performance criticism” of Shakespeare)—studying, in other words, how performance interprets and so reproduces Shakespeare—I ask instead how contemporary theatre practice might provide the means for seizing alternative conceptions of the work of writing in the event of performance.
In this paper, I take up two examples of the contemporary range of dramatic media, postcard plays and rehearsal mobile applications, to open a consideration of the ways technological change alters the space, practice, and meaning of categories often taken to be stable: drama, theatre, and (especially) Shakespeare performance.
Getting It Wrong: Twelfth Night and the Broken Jest
Twelfth Night, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, is built out of a series of events and characters defined by their mistakes or errors. My talk focuses on the social and semantic form of the jest as a potential expression of this pattern of error, using Sir Andrew Aguecheek in particular to explore the place of stupidity both in Twelfth Night and in contemporary criticism’s encounter with the formerly obvious, but now obscure humor of early modern England. Taking myself as a model, I attempt to locate the place of idiotic error both in a contextual/historicist and in a formalist reading of Twelfth Night. Along the way, I discuss the specter of stupidity — silence and incompetence — in comic form, in historicist philology, and in my own pedagogy and scholarship. Wise fools and winking jesters have no place in the argument: instead, I attempt to find a place in Shakespeare studies for unreflective error and deep, unforgivable blockheadedness.