I gave the following talk as part of the 18th Annual Pacific Authors Celebration on 13 April 2017. It was hosted by the Pacific University Libraries and presented alongside an exhibit in the Forest Grove Library Gallery.
¶ Thank you all for coming today. I want to share some brief words with you about WhatsApp, hand tattoos, and how my writing has been positively affected by collaborating with others. This will be in three parts.
Shakespeare, the Rubber Stamp
¶ Collaboration is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name, “Shakespeare”—the proverbial rubber stamp for “high art” and “literary genius.” I guess that makes me not a very good Shakespearean. My scholarship is interested in the collaborative work of theatre-makers in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England—the period when typecasting was a good thing because it meant that, as an actor, you could hold twenty variations of the same kind of character in your head at a time, and, as a playwright, you specialized in writing kinds of scenes rather than whole plays alone. Based on the evidence of three staged readings in the late 1500s, I really hope this all happened at a bar.
Yesterday, I rewarded a day of syllabi- and lesson-planning with an afternoon trip to Powell’s bookstore here in Portland. It was completely brilliant, as famed and expected, and I managed to pick up a few gifts for friends and a little something for myself. While I can’t believe I still haven’t found a free moment to read James Shapiro’s award-winning The Year of Lear yet—having loved his 1599—I did discover an anthology I didn’t realize he had edited: Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the revolution to Now (Penguin Library of America, 2013). With a forward by former President Bill Clinton, who has been much in the news of late with forthcoming election, I was reminded of the several Shakespeare-centered news stories the circulated this summer.
Brexit Book Deal
London Mayor Boris Johnson, who we thought would become Prime Minister after the Brexit debacle this summer (thankfully not!), signed a book deal to writer a Shakespeare biography back in late 2014. He received a £500,000 advance for the biography, to be part of the 400th anniversary celebrations. Why any book agent thought a Churchill pop-historian was suited for the job—not to mention the fact that the market couldn’t possibly sustain another one of these—is anyone’s guess. This past July, shortly after pulling out of the PM race he also shelved the project, currently (and ego-manically) titled Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius. The last thing we need is one more white man showing us what a genius he is because he can mansplain the “genius” of Shakespeare.*
The Curtain Squared
Late in spring, some of the initial findings at the MOLA excavation site of the Elizabethan amphitheater known as the Curtain began to make headlines. Some of the stories are quite goofy and implausible, such as original artifacts from Romeo and Juliet and so on. The big news is that the theatre was thought to have been designed like the three other major excavations underway—in a round or semi-round shape with access to a thrust stage on three sides. Not so! The Curtain was in fact a rectangle! Holger Syme explains the implications in excellent detail, with comparison charts, in his “Post-Curtain Theatre History” post.
Speaking of Holger, he found himself in the middle of a strange media blitz when a few outlets caught whiff that he had posted nearly 500 live-tweets in response to some very dated, stodgy, and largely inaccurate scholarship. (I.e., More mansplaining of Shakespeare’s genius by certain Sir to one’s own brilliance.) After he posted the #1Lear responses to Storify in early June, it blew up in masthead articles at Inside Higher Ed, Times Higher Education, Verge, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times, among others. While two white men fighting over a dead white guy’s play about a king could seem farcically navel-gazing on the surface, as a scholar in the field what Syme is critiquing is incredibly important: there is a very dated form of scholarship that willfully neglects archival data for effusive “human condition” arguments that validate a certain set of privileges and assumptions. I look forward to his forthcoming LA Review of Books piece on the experience.
December 2016 Update:
In the last several months, the #1Lear debate took some interesting turns via the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Syme’s initial piece, “The Text is Foolish: Brian Vickers’s ‘The One King Lear,'” was published 6 September here.
Vickers’ “A Response to Holger Syme” ran on 6 November here.
Syme’s final piece, “‘King Lear’ at the Stationers, Again: A Response to Brian Vickers,” ran 18 December here.
*What biographies do I actually like as a Shakespearean? Put these two together and I think you have the most measured account of the man called Shakespeare’s life and times:
Holland, Peter. William Shakespeare. Very Interesting People. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Shapiro, James. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. Harper Perennial, 2006.