English Profs Attend World Shakespeare Congress
Monique Pittman, Professor of English and Director of the J.N. Andrews Honors Program}
Vanessa Corredera, Assistant Professor of English
Interviewed by Scott Moncrieff
You two went to a conference in August. What and where was it?
MP: The World Shakespeare Congress, which meets every five years.
VC: And cities have to bid to host it, like the Olympics.
MP: Because this was for the 400th anniversary celebration of the death of Shakespeare, the event was co-sponsored by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe Theatre, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the University of Birmingham and the University of London. Half of the time we spent in Stratford-upon-Avon and half in London. It lasted from the July 30 to August 7. It was epic. It started on Sunday, with a presentation by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, and it ended on a Sunday, at Westminster Abbey, with a 10 o’clock worship service in the Poet’s Corner.
VC: And in the evenings, one of the traditions is to leave time to go to plays.
MP: When we went to see Hamlet, with The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, we just stayed in our seats and they had an hour-long interview with the cast. And at The Globe, we had the original music practices demonstrated to us.
VC: At Stratford, Ayanna Thompson—who does Shakespeare, race and performance studies—interviewed the actor Adrian Lester, who had did a noted performance of Othello for the National Theatre. Lester discussed what it’s like to play Othello, and the debates about whether a black actor should play Othello, or if that feeds into stereotypes.
MP: The mornings were plenary sessions with very important people from theater and the scholarly community, and the afternoons were the concurrent seminars where the rest of us presented.
Could I have a thirty second version of each of your papers?
VC: My paper was “How dey goin to kill Othello?”: Key & Peele, Race, and Shakespearean Influence." I looked at an Othello comedy sketch that Key and Peele did on their Key and Peele television show in about 2012. It’s set in Renaissance England, and two Moors go to see Othello for the first time (Othello is also a Moor). The audience doesn’t see them watching the play; rather, we see them excited about the play before it begins, and then at intermission, and then at the end, by which time they are very upset by Shakespeare’s representation of Black masculinity. So I talk about how this sketch is a helpful reminder, in this year when we’re celebrating Shakespeare’s universality, his ability to speak to all people in all times, that in fact he does not speak to all people in all times, and we need to be very conscientious about not making such claims.
MP: My paper was "Color-Conscious Casting and Multicultural Britain in the BBC Henry V (2012): Historicizing Adaptation in an Age of Digital Placelessness." I paid attention to how we read the BBC’s Hollow Crown Henry V as a historical text, so I placed it in the context of British multicultural practices and its failure to really meet those standards that are public policy. I go on to argue that because film exists in this placeless area, because people stream across the world, that we can also then read these films in relation to other vocabularies of expression. So I talked about how the “magical Negro” stereotype is a reference point that was probably unintended, but because you can’t just read that film in its context in Britain, because we read it in the context of Hollywood film idiom, it has this unintended consequence of being about the Negro who comes to support the process of white male self-actualization, and then conveniently dies.
You’ve already touched on this, but what is something new that you learned about Shakespeare and how he is studied these days?
VC: I was on cloud nine after the Adrian Lester talk. He also talked about how when you’re doing an original performance practice production, where you have male actors playing female roles (similar to Shakespeare’s day when boys played female roles), he showed us on stage, “here are the things I do” to play a woman. It’s not just about putting on a dress. It includes how he shifts his hand, the way he holds his wrist and bends his neck, the intonation of his voice, where his elbows are, how he walks and the weight he puts on his hips. I don’t actually know the practices that go into crafting those performances, so I really appreciated that conversation.
MP: I’ve been working on this project of post-2000 adaptations of the history plays, and I talked to several people who worked on versions of Richard III that are set in Arab culture. It was great to talk to other people who are interested in the same thing, and who introduced me to other productions I didn’t know about. Becoming aware of the wealth of material in global Shakespeare that’s not from the Anglo culture was really valuable.
On another point, Shakespeare Association, which we go to every year, is three days, but because this conference was seven days, we had recurring conversations with people, and I thought it was better for carrying on an extended conversation, rather than just, “Oh, I will speak to this person for five minutes at the opening mixer.” I’m a shy mixer, but being there so much of the time together allowed for the more easeful development of conversations.
What do you think about the idea that Shakespeare is the gold standard of world authors, somebody who is head and shoulders above everyone else?
MP: His plays are remarkable, and they wouldn’t be continually interesting to other cultures if they weren’t, even given their really painful colonial association. Even when you acknowledge that they were a part of English dominance of the world for 250 years, you can’t deny the persistence of their power to speak about what it means to be human. I think that the more the plays are getting released from a certain canonical reverence, the more that they’re getting recycled, taken apart, by various cultural perspectives, the more you can see the richness of it, and maybe at least purge a bit of that hegemonic taint that they can have for some people.
VC: I tend to agree. In one of the plenaries, the novelist Hart Jacobsen talked with us about his about his new fictional reimagining of The Merchant of Venice, called My Name is Shylock. He was asked to write an “updated” version of the play, but he didn’t want it to be all the same characters and plotline, just set in modern times, because that just felt too restrictive. He said when he kind of let that go and pursued the ideas of the play and just the characters that were most interesting to him, that then the novel actually came together for him. There is still a push and pull in Shakespeare studies, as I perceive it, regarding traditional teaching and studying of Shakespeare, ardently historicist, and I think there’s value in that. I teach in that way; my dissertation was in that mode. But I also think there is a joy and release when, alongside that traditional approach, we think about how Shakespeare can be reimagined in different times and different cultures, through different languages, to not be tied to the idea of “this does or doesn’t count as Shakespeare.”
MP: I just read an interview with novelist Ian McEwan where he said that he comes back again and again to Hamlet, and that in his new novel Hamlet is a shadow presence in the text. So Shakespeare’s presence is pretty pervasive. I think archival, historicist interpretations of Shakespeare have really oppressed us in the discipline of Shakespeare studies, for 30 years, and this conference was very refreshing in that it was moving beyond that, seeing that as dangerous to what we are interested in in the plays and as not creating space for alternate voices, reshapings of the play texts. There was a lot of room for adaptation, appropriation and global performance in this conference, more so than we see at Shakespeare Association.
What did your husbands do all day while you two were Shakespeare-ing?
MP: We bought them “plus one” passes, which got them into the opening night performances, and they could go free into every Shakespeare site in Stratford, so they did Anne Hathaway’s cottage, the Shakespeare birthplace, they did the church where he’s buried and they went to a museum exhibit where you could see Shakespeare’s will.
VC: They did pre-shopping for the souvenirs we brought back to share with students, and in London they wandered around and looked at high-end cars and took photos.
How will your attendance at the conference influence your ongoing research projects?
VC: My seminar asked for a very short paper, so I’m planning to expand that for submission to Shakespeare Association in the spring of 2017. And it’s part of a book project that I’m working on, about modern adaptations and appropriations of Othello. I want to put this play in conversation with Critical Race Theory and ethnic studies.
MP: The paper that I gave will appear in Adaptation, which is a journal edited by one of the persons who organized our session. One of the great things about these sessions is that they’re run by amazing scholars who give you rich peer feedback in a really pleasant way. And I plan that this article will also be part of a book project I hope to work on next year, which studies Shakespeare’s history plays in the context of the rise of new nationalism.
What is the value of attending this conference to your teaching?
VC: There’s a kind of energy that you get from going, attending, learning. We don’t get to be students that often. We’re on the other side, and here I got to be a student for a week! So I have been super-energized for the classroom. And you can’t oversell the kind of networking that you can do at a conference.
MP: We both started the semester teaching The Tempest (in different classes), because it was being performed at (University of) Notre Dame, and the way I organized that set of lectures and our approach to learning in the classroom was influenced by what we had just done. Even something as silly as the photos we took end up in our PowerPoints. (It was an) Amazing experience, and we’re so grateful that the school sent us, because it was a great opportunity to network, to sharpen our own thinking, to develop practices which are useful in explaining things to our students.
VC: Plus we promoted the university. Everywhere we went, people would ask where we were from, and we’d say “Andrews University.”
MP: And it reminded us of how lucky we are to work in the same department. Schools much bigger than ours do not have two Shakespeareans, and to have each other really fuels our productivity.