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.
by Clare Pettitt, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, Department of English
“The first action of the battle of Manchester is over”, wrote Major Dyneley of the 15th Hussars, “& has, I am happy to say ended in the complete discomfiture of the Enemy.” At 4 pm on August 16, 1819, Dyneley was already back in the Hulme Barracks with his regiment. The “Enemy” was the 60,000 to 80,000 people, most of them textile workers, who had assembled that morning in St Peter’s Field on the outskirts of Manchester city centre, to hold a peaceful demonstration to protest against the Corn Laws, and to call for parliamentary reform. The Enemy was the people. And discomfited they had surely been.
Henry Hunt, the orator who had addressed the meeting briefly before being arrested and beaten up, said that the Manchester Yeomanry, volunteers who made the first incursion into the crowd, before the Hussars, had “charged amongst the people, sabring right and left, in all directions. Sparing neither age,sex, nor rank”. It all happened very quickly. Ten minutes after the first charge, William Joliffe remembered that “the ground was quite covered with hats, shoes, musical instruments and other things”. Another eyewitness recounted that, “[s]everal mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered.
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.
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.
by Clare Pettitt, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, Department of English
“Dissent clearly varies in terms of seriousness”, says Ian Hislop, the guest curator of the British Museum’s new exhibition. It certainly does.I Object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent throws together a peculiarly Hislopian blend of public school scatological gags and objects and images that record acts of resistance under totalitarian regimes that may have resulted in the torture and/or death of their makers. The stakes are vertiginously uneven, and as a result, the exhibition frequently runs into problems of tone.
As curator, we encounter a thoughtful and knowledgeable Hislop, respectful of other cultures and alert to injustice and cruelty in the world. But as presenter, we encounter more of a fnarr fnarr chortler: “Gillray knew what would sell a print – sex, the royal family and fashionable shoes”, he chuckles, or “Have workmen on building sites always been keen on sexual commentary?” It is an interesting problem. Amnesty International meets Finbarr Saunders meets the British Museum, and the result is often confusing, but never boring.
Paul Gilroy, Professor of American and English Literature at King’s, was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in April 2018 – a prestigious recognition of his work as a cultural historian, critical race theorist and thinker who has shaped black diaspora studies. Founded in 1780, the Academy has a stellar list of former members including Benjamin Franklin (1781), Charles Darwin (1874), Albert Einstein (1924) and Martin Luther King, Jr (1966). Here, Paul speaks to PhD researcher Rachel Bolle-Debessay about receiving this award.
Rachel Bolle-Debessay (RBD): Thanks so much for talking to us, Paul! Our trigger for this interview was your election as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. So could you begin at this point – what does this mean for you and the nature of the scholarship that you undertake?
Paul Gilroy (PG): I was humbled and amazed. I’d say that being taken seriously is the best feeling an academic can have. I worked in the US for some years and one of my responsibilities as a teacher and researcher lay in the field of African American Studies. As an outsider, I faced a significant amount of hostility especially when my work was perceived as interrupting the standard cultural nationalist approaches that have defined that enterprise.
So this award cheered me up. It made me feel that in spite of the antipathy I had endured, the work I’d done had acquired its own life and some people had found it useful. It’s absolutely fine if they use it as something to disagree with and sharpen their intellectual claws upon. It makes me feel that I haven’t wasted my time.
‘A Spot Called Crayford’ is a Heritage Lottery Fund project led by Crayford Reminiscence and Youth (CRAY), all about making the earliest Anglo-Saxon histories of Kent more accessible to school children. As part of the project, King’s medievalists led workshops in two Crayford primary schools, and a day-long journey to five sites in Kent associated with Anglo-Saxons stories.
One site we visited provoked questions that link to a research interest important to both of us: how ‘the medieval’ exists in the contemporary moment. Addressing collisions of archaeological enquiry, folk-stories, and over 1,000 years of writing about this place tested the possibilities of fun but critical activities, and asked us to confront the role of emotional responses to histories and spaces.
The site, or rather two sites, known as Kit’s Coty House and the White Horse Stone, are part of a scattered collection of Neolithic standing stones and barrows known as the ‘Medway Megaliths’. We had been asked by CRAY to lead activities for children aged 8-14 that engaged with these sites and their association with Horsa and Categern, two mythological fifth-century figures integral to the story of the adventus anglorum, the coming of the Angles.
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.
by Clare Pettitt, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, King’s College London
Domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse, neglect, sexual obsession and torture: Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights is nothing if not graphic in its depiction of the messy, frightening and chaotic lives of unhappy families. No wonder critics at the time were repelled by its “shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity” and its “details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance.” But the women in the novel, trapped in these toxic, inter-generational cycles of abuse, are not passive but remain resolute and resistant.
“Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know,” wrote Charlotte Brontë in her apologetic preface to the 1850 posthumous edition of her sister’s novel. But despite her misgivings, Heathcliff remains one of the most memorable and enduring characters in Victorian literature.
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’.