June 21, 2010

Britgrad 2010

I'm not long back from this year's British Graduate Shakespeare Conference at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford. It was my fourth time at Britgrad, third as a presenter, and it remains one of my favourite conferences. It's laid back, packed with interesting stuff, and they serve strawberry cheesecake - what's not to like?

I won't even begin to attempt to list or describe every panel I went to, but just pick out a few of the most relevant highlights for my own work.

The plenaries this year were excitingly relevant for me, concentrating as they did on textual issues and editions. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen began the three days by discussing their dual projects: the Folio-based RSC Shakespeare and the new Collaborative Plays volume. Of course, these are the books to which I'm attached as a PhD student, so the discussions weren't particularly new to me, but it was exceptionally useful to be able to say, whenever anyone during the conference asked what I was doing, "I'm working on the book Jonathan and Eric were talking about" - very useful shorthand! Rasmussen did offer some useful points which I hadn't considered, however, such as the suggestion that the 1633 Pericles and 1634 Two Noble Kinsmen were published as deliberate supplements to the 1632 second Folio. That's obviously a very useful context within which to put the myriad appearances of apocryphal plays, especially those printed in the third Folio, so I'll be able to build this in to my first chapter.

On a related note, Rasmussen's dissection of the reviews of the edition was extremely amusing - I hadn't noticed the volume of reviewers who attacked the "yellowness" of the book!

The extremely lovely and approachable Emma Smith was the final plenary speaker, bringing the conference full-circle with a discussion of reading the First Folio. Methodologically, this was of real use to me. I'm offering, in my first chapter, an imagined reader response to the 1734 volume of Shakespeare's works published by Robert Walker, which was the first collected edition of Shakespeare to mix up the order of the plays. Smith's acute paper explored the implications of sequential reading, arguing that the lack of paratextual connections between the texts as printed in the First Folio suggests that there was no systematic effort to ensure sequential consistency - to wit, that the reorganising of history effectively began and ended on the title page. It's a fasinating thought that's going to help shape my own writing. Most important is the point that sequence does not dictate interpretation; however, it does allow for different possibilities of reading: we are not forced to see the plays in sequence, but equally their positioning in sequence allows the reader to draw meaning from this sequence (as, obviously, has happened in the twentieth century as the history plays became an integrated cycle). I was also intrigued by the possibility that, although speech prefixes are not made consistent in a literary sense throughout individual plays, the examples Smith used of changing names (e.g. both Antipholi in Comedy of Errors are, at different times, "E. Anti"), there may appear to be an attempt to create experiential consistency: stage directions always clarified in a linear fashion how the speech prefixes that followed were to be interpreted. It would be interesting to follow this through the First Folio and see if there is an attempt to impose this kind of linear consistency on the plays, which may perhaps suggest a rigorous form of editing, even if with a different end.

The big speaker on Day 2 was the affable David Bevington, speaking on issues related to his new book on Shakespearean biography. I've been thinking a great deal about biography this year, partly because my supervisor has written two (sort of) biographies of Shakespeare, and partly because I increasingly believe it's got a major rolle to play in perpetuating the anti-Stratfordian practice. As I suggested to Bevington, it seems to me that the vast majority of Shakespeare biographers (whether anti-Stratfordians or orthodox) are drawn to the gaps; that it's the ability to create the "Shakespeare" that we want that perpetuates the Shakespeare Biography industry - as seen by the conflicting accounts (which Bevington drew particular attention to) of whether Shakespeare was Catholic or Protestant. I'll be extremely interested to read his book, and his talk reminded me of how useful biography can be in helping flesh out an understanding of the author's work; however, I remain convinced that the divide between biography and works needs to be far more clearly delineated, otherwise we open ourselves up to methodological critique and, essentially, imaginative fiction rather than historical research.

Among the main panels (as exciting as the plenaries are, the graduate panels are invariably far more important), Titus Andronicus was this year's black, along with romances and Macbeth. The standard of papers was extremely high this year, I thought (and I'm not just saying that!), so I'll just pick out a couple which were of particular use to me: Micah Coston's work on the Folio's "brothers and sisters" usefully contextualised the printing culture in which the book was created and sold, as well as indulging in the kind of paratextual reading of publishers' rhetoric that I'm myself extremely partial to. On the same panel, Enrico Scarevelli alerted me to aspects of the 1616 Jonson Folio paratext that I hadn't appreciated the significance of. Briony Frost discussed the Jacobean succession and the response of the wider print culture to James' own printings, which will be extremely helpful in fleshing out my own section on The London Prodigal's relationship to the Jacobean Moment. The panel on objects of significance on the early modern stage was helpful to me, not in the specific contents (which were deeply fascinating), but in the wider questions raised of physical dramaturgy and significance.

Kate Harvey's paper on the Animated Tales was one of the most fun papers of the second day, very much the kind of thing I originally wanted to do PhD research on, and a particular quote in relation to puppetry - that it's not the poses in stop-motion that create movement, but what happens in the spaces between them - gave me an oddly useful way into thinking about textual spaces, expanded by Emma Smith in her discussion of the absence of paratextual connections between supposedly linked plays. Rebecca Warren-Heys discussed "forward recollection" in the history plays more broadly and Richard II in particular, which was helpful theoretical contextualisation for the continuing arguments about the priority of Woodstock and Richard II that has become so central to the authorship debate surrounding the former play. Alison Stewart's paper on the Histories had a similar relevance to my work, thinking about the importance of the History plays as a sequence and how that has tied in to particular cultura moments.

The final thing I must mention is my own panel. I was part of a plenary discussion of Double Falsehood, presenting my paper on the play's inclusion in the Arden Shakespeare. The fundamental premise of my paper was that, although we now talk of different authorial paradigms as applied to Shakespeare's and ideas of what being "Shakespearean" means, canonicity is still dominated by attribution studies that prioritise linguistic evidence over all else, which serves to keep plays with potential minimal contributions in a state of neglect. My argument was that the inclusion of Double Falsehood in a Shakespeare series is an important part of a movement that sees canonicity as a beginning point for discussion rather than an end result, opening up a discursive and porous authorial canon - if an 18th century adaptation of an adaptation can be usefully considered "Shakespearean", then canon may no longer be functioning as a limiting entity.

I was sharing the panel with two keynote speakers, John Jowett of the Institute and Greg Doran of the RSC. The discussion with Jowett was particularly useful to me, highlighting as it did the important questions of how we define the word "Shakespearean" (as I explained to Jowett afterwards, the essential core exploration of my thesis) and how we reconcile shifting theories of a porous canon in material books. It's my hope that online editions will ultimately democratise literature so that canons can be instantaneously broken down and reconstituted in myriad forms, but this is a long way off, and certainly we need to think more seriously about how, right now, we begin integrating Shakespeare's canon with other authorial canons and with other networks of "authorship". Doran then discussed his forthcoming production of Cardenio, which will utilise bits of Double Falsehood in what will be a dramatised production of Shelton's translation of the Cardenio episodes from Don Quixote. It'll be a fascinating imaginative version, hopefully, and Doran's comments on what he sees as the inherent unfitness for stage of Double Falsehood were extremely interesting, particularly his belief that the play lacks two scenes: Henriquez's seduction of Violante, and Leonara's liberation from the nunnery. I agree on the second, though am not sure on the first - how often does one see a rape onstage in the early modern drama? The surviving treatment is perfunctory, but is still logically coherent.

I attended several other panels and papers, including some really stunning discussions of Titus, useful papers on genre and stage conventions, and much more, so apologies that I've only taken the time to discuss the ones with direct impact on my own work. It was, as ever, a fab conference, and from a personal point of view I left it with a real buzz - really appreciate the opportunity the committee gave me this year, and I've made some extremely important contacts for the future. Now, sadly, back to the day job.

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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  • Congratulations. by Andrew on this entry
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