Category Archives: Early Modern and Shakespeare

Shakespeare at war

By Amy Lidster, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of English, @amy_lidster

Productions of Shakespeare’s plays have been regularly used to comment on the political and public affairs of their performance moment – occasionally provoking heated responses. In 2017, for example, the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park prompted a media furore (led by Fox News), because the presentation of Caesar bore a striking resemblance to Donald Trump.

The Public Theatre, other news media, and Shakespeare scholars (such as Stephen Greenblatt) were quick to point out that Shakespeare’s play hardly condones the assassination of Caesar and that it explores, instead, the conspirators’ flawed and extreme reactions to a democracy under threat. But audience responses cannot be contained by a careful reading of the text, and, while a production may clearly announce its relevance to contemporary politics, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific application or to control public responses to it.

Shakespeare in the Park/ ‘Julius Caesar‘, New York, 2017.

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‘Yours Truly, Lady Macbeth’

The Shakespeare Academy has been running at King’s for the past three years as a Widening Participation project. In 2017-18 we reached over 350 students, continuing to develop close partnerships with teachers and pupils at eight London state-funded secondary schools, from Key Stage 3 to GCSE. We run workshops with the students that investigate Shakespeare’s plays through seminar-style sessions, readings, and creative writing activities. Read more about the Shakespeare Academy here.

Below you can read some examples of creative writing by Years 9 and 10 students from our summer 2018 workshops. We asked them to imagine what Lady Macbeth might have written if she had left a suicide note. As you can see, the pieces are inspired by the imagery and language of the play, but re-imagined for a modern audience.

I was particularly encouraged by the ways in which students engaged with the gender politics of Macbeth. Their writings express the limitations of Lady Macbeth’s agency within early modern patriarchy with a subtlety that I found truly impressive. The entrants showcased below were chosen for their originality, insight and imaginative engagement with Shakespeare’s text.  They express the individual poetic and creative voices of the students, while maintaining close adherence to the characterisation, imagery and tone of the play.

Dr Gemma Miller, English Department and Globe Education Continue reading ‘Yours Truly, Lady Macbeth’

Stimulating student interest in Shakespeare with the King’s Shakespeare Academy

By Dr Gemma Miller, Department of English and Globe Education

The Shakespeare Academy has been running at King’s for the past three years and I am very proud to have been involved from its inception. In 2017-18 we reached over 350 Widening Participation students, continuing to develop close partnerships with teachers and pupils at eight London state-funded secondary schools, from Key Stage 3 to GCSE. We’ve also run Teachers Days with the London Shakespeare Centre.

My role as administrator and workshop leader involves liaising with the schools, creating the programme for the Academy study days, supporting my colleagues in preparing individual sessions and delivering workshops myself. I am particularly passionate about inclusive access to education: my brother and I were the first in our family to obtain degrees. I also  believe that engaging with Shakespeare in an interactive and creative way can help to break down perceived barriers by making the plays seem more accessible.

All ‘national curriculum’ students study Shakespeare (two plays at key stages 3 and at least one play at key stage 4). Many of the pupils we work with are from Black or Ethnic Minority backgrounds, or come from families where their parents or carers have not attended university. We give these students access to university-style learning to give them a taste of what they can expect. This makes Shakespeare’s plays a valuable common currency to reach groups who are under-represented in tertiary education.  Also, plays such as Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet deal with important social and political issues – power, love, inter-generational conflict, gang warfare –  that are still relevant today. The plays are  useful tools for thinking about wider social concerns that are universally recognisable.

The Weird Sisters (Shakespeare, MacBeth, Act 1, Scene 3) engraving by John Raphael Smith after Henry Fuseli. The Met. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/395662

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John Donne and the Jacobean Fake Media

by Melanie Marshall (Lincoln College, Oxford) and Daniel Starza Smith (English Department, King’s College London)

Every regime seeks to control the media. In the quest to dominate the official story, a repressive state might own the press outright (North Korea sits bottom of the 2018 World Press Freedom Index). It might sit tight with those who do (any British Prime Ministerial hopeful must bend the knee to Rupert Murdoch). It might restrict it (Google is making a limited search engine for China). Or it might simply undermine it: a racist tweet from Donald Trump is an effective distraction from ongoing scandals. Meanwhile, the American media’s ability to hold him to account is steadily eroded by accusations of fakery, disloyalty and partisanship.

Such tyrannical controls are hardly new, and early modern England faced its own media restrictions. Queen Elizabeth I famously claimed to want “no windows into men’s souls,” but with their reading material she proved less liberal. Throughout the last decade of her reign, her power waned and censorship tightened, until in 1599 the so-called Bishops’ Ban made the printing of satire a crime. Yet satire thrives on subversion, and the inflammatory material of the 1590s circulated away from the eyes of the state’s press-licensers. Handwritten copies of mischievous material passed from sympathiser to sympathiser, engendering more copies as they went.

Just such a privately circulated manuscript emerged in December 2016. Working through a tin trunk of scraps at Westminster Abbey, Matthew Payne, Keeper of the Muniments, uncovered a small booklet written in an early seventeenth-century hand, containing a work by the poet John Donne (1572–1631). It proved to be a copy of Donne’s Catalogus Librorum Satyricus, known in English as The Courtier’s Library, a satirical list of fake books whose composition we can now date securely to 1603 or early 1604.

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Figuring Gender Difference in Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy

by Hailey Bachrach, PhD candidate researching gender in early modern history plays in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, @hbachrach.

If you’ve heard of director Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy, which debuted at the Donmar Warehouse from 2012 to 2016 and was released in full on BBC iPlayer on 17 June,  you’ve probably heard of its premise: it is performed by a company made up entirely of women, and framed as plays put on by a group of female prisoners. The three plays—Julius Caesar, Henry IV (the two parts combined into one), and The Tempest—are all intimately concerned with questions of masculinity and male relationships—fathers, brothers, sons—and are all notoriously light on female characters.

The prison framing device means, however, that they are not devoid of a female presence. There is no attempt at prosthetics or illusion in the production’s costumes. The actors wear prison-issue grey sweatpants and t-shirts, with accessories to designate changes of character. When Henry IV opened in 2014, Harriet Walter, who stars in all three productions, wrote that  ‘our neuter prison garb … helps the audience put aside any questions of “Are they men playing women or women playing men?”… I would argue that when the cast are all women, we can look beyond gender to our common humanity’.

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‘Gender blind’ casting, who and what goes unseen?

by Hailey Bachrach, PhD candidate researching gender in early modern history plays in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, @hbachrach.

 

The Globe Theatre’s opening two shows of the 2018 season (and opening shows of the tenure of new artistic director Michelle Terry) are ‘gender blind’. It’s a phrase that’s deployed freely now in discussions about casting, usually referring to women being cast in male roles, usually in plays by Shakespeare and other canonical writers. But it’s not used with much consistency: Terry and her company use it to describe their approach to casting, in which both men and women are cast in roles that do not match their own gender, but play them as written. It has also been used to describe casting women in male roles that are then played as women.

The attention paid to gender in all of these productions seems to undermine what the phrase ‘gender blind’ clearly suggests: that the actor’s gender will go unseen.

What’s less clear is whether this lack of sight is meant to apply to the artists or the audience. It’s worth noting this term has been critiqued as ableist, but as it remains a phrase used by the production and criticism industries, we should explore the implications of its suggestion that we do not simply ignore, but literally do not see gender in these productions. Continue reading ‘Gender blind’ casting, who and what goes unseen?

Lessons in global commerce (from an early East India Company employee)

Emily Soon is a PhD candidate researching how early modern writers across a range of literary genres perceived the East Indies (principally, China, India and Southeast Asia) in early modern England. This blog was originally posted on Currently @ King’s.

International trade hurts local communities. It causes economic hardship at home and destroys the environment, while the culture of consumerism it fuels is destroying our values and way of life.

Similar sentiments to these recur across the media today: this so-called backlash against globalisation is said to have contributed to Brexit and the rise of Trump, and to have transformed the shape of political movements across the world. This pent-up frustration seems to be quintessentially twenty-first century, the disillusioned rant of a world no longer charmed by the siren song of free trade and borderless commerce.

And yet, the sentiments I began with are taken not from a present-day party political tract, but from a play written almost 400 years ago. While William Mountford’s amateur dramatic effort, The Launching of the Mary: Or the Seaman’s Honest Wife (ca. 1632-3), may not be able to rival the plays of William Shakespeare or Ben Jonson – for a start, we do not know if the single handwritten text held in the British Library archives was ever performed – it does encapsulate, poignantly, the profound anxieties that have long attended the idea of international trade. Continue reading Lessons in global commerce (from an early East India Company employee)

Early Modern Verbatim Theatre: A Reflection

by Lucy Munro, Reader in Early Modern English Literature at the Department of English, and Emma Whipday, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL

In 1624, a play entitled The Late Murder in Whitechapel, or Keep the Widow Waking was staged at the Red Bull playhouse in Clerkenwell. Written by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, William Rowley and John Webster, it was based on accounts of two recent crimes. The first was the murder of a Whitechapel woman, Joan Tindall, by her son, Nathaniel, which became the subject of at least two ballads, one of which survives. The second was the forced marriage of a 62-year-old widow, Anne Elsdon, to a much younger man, Tobias Audley.

tavern scene
A woodcut from Samuel Rowlands’s ’Tis Merry When Gossips Meete (c. 1613), showing a widow, wife and maid drinking in a tavern

Tobias lured Anne to a tavern, where he plied her with alcohol and tried to persuade her to promise to marry him – a promise that could be legally binding if it was said before witnesses. After several days he eventually seems to have got some kind of agreement from her, and a priest hired for the purpose married them. However, the ‘marriage’ became the subject of a series of cases in the secular and religious courts.

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Shakespeare 2.0: Pray tell, what is a ‘MOOC’?

By Rachael Nicholas,  PhD candidate (University of Roehampton), MOOC mentor, and alumna of the King’s MA in Shakespeare Studies

In case you’d missed it, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Whilst some of the celebrations have commemorated the man himself, the catalogue of performances and special events comprised a celebration of afterlives, focusing on the 400 year history of encountering Shakespeare and his works. Their sheer range is a testament to the part that adaptation across different media has played in the construction of what we understand as ‘Shakespeare’ today.

The proliferation of media technologies has not only given rise to new modes of adaptation, but also to new ways of distributing and accessing Shakespeare’s work. It is now possible to open out live performances to audiences around the world through live broadcasts to cinemas, and increasingly, for free online. The question of what it means to encounter performances of Shakespeare through the digital – for both production and reception – is central to my own research project on live relay audiences. But to encounter Shakespeare through ‘performance’ is of course not the only way to encounter Shakespeare.

Continue reading Shakespeare 2.0: Pray tell, what is a ‘MOOC’?

‘A new route discovered’: On Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by Dr Clare Whitehead, Research Assistant

First published in 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnets are among the most accomplished and absorbing poems in the English language. They are also some of the most beloved and have enjoyed a vibrant afterlife, with continued readings, recitations, and reprints fortifying Shakespeare’s claim in Sonnet 60: “My verse shall stand”. These remarkable poems do not stand alone however, but rather, alongside the many works that they have inspired.

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