About the Bard

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By Diane Meyer Lowman (The Shakespeare Institute, UoB).

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I have loved Shakespeare for as long as I can remember. Some might say I’m obsessed. So when my boys grew and flew, and I needed to occupy myself and stave off the impending midlife crisis, I got busy with the Bard. I’d flirted with him in many ways over the decades, but felt that if I were to call myself a true devotee, I had to commit. So I took out and dusted off my favorite undergrad tome: The Riverside Shakespeare, vintage 1974 with the 1980 price tag of $22.50 stamped inside – and read his plays. All of them. To keep myself honest and accountable, and on track, I created The Shakespeare Diaries on WordPress, (dilo922.wordpress.com) and submitted an entry after finishing each one.

That took two years. Still slightly bored, and not entirely satisfied, I applied to the Shakespeare Institute’s MA in Shakespeare Studies program. For some serendipitous and mysterious reason, they saw fit to grant admission to this middle aged American woman.

And there I spent a year rereading, and rereading again, everything he wrote. And I wrote. Not blog posts (although I did blog about the experience in My Life Off the Post Road (https://books.hamlethub.com/booksink/), but six essays, several presentations, three conference papers, and a 15,000-word dissertation.

I could not possibly fit what I learned (mostly how much I didn’t know) from both experiences into 1,500 – or even 15,000 – words. But I can reflect upon the differences between the two.

  1. But first, a word about the constant – his appeal. I am so drawn to Shakespeare because he addresses the broadest and most intimate aspects of the human condition in some of the most beautiful language ever written. His work is like the expanding universe and a triangle of baklava: each time I visit, I find more, as if it is ever expanding and cannot even contain itself. Words he wrote over four hundred years ago reach us as bright as stars we see in the night sky that no longer exist. It is multilayered and so sweet and delicious that it almost hurts. So…
  2. Any Shakespeare is Good. I am a yoga instructor. I tell students – and firmly believe – that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ yoga. If you’re on the mat, even lying in Savasana for 75 minutes, it’s yoga, with all of its attending benefits. Similarly, and despite the cultural capital that William Shakespeare carries and snobbery that that often engenders, get to know the Bard in any way that works: alone or in a group, with kids or a highbrow brain trust, inside the Globe or on a lawn on a towel in a park, with professionals or amateurs, in print or on the screen. You get it. Just take the plunge – the water’s fine. If you have Shakespeare-phobia, practice exposure therapy. Take him in small doses: Band-Aids festooned with his insults, college student-produced YouTube series (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiLEjV1vcwMB-lEJQ7G2ibw), or Ben Crystal’s original pronunciation version of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYiYd9RcK5M). Just come. Like with coming to the yoga mat, no matter how much I resisted cracking the Riverside spine, or sitting through another Shakespeare Institute Thursday lecture, I never felt worse for having done so, and usually felt better.
  3. How people reacted to my endeavours – I became a familiar sight in Westport (Connecticut), as I perpetually lugged my beloved book around town with me looking for a place to alight and read and write. This nomadic approach kept me from complacency and lethargy. The other denizens of my favorite haunts (Starbucks, Barnes & Noble Café, the Westport Library) showed interest and incredulity. “No one is making you do that?” they’d ask. “You actually enjoy it?” They’d track my progress with curiosity, and cheer me on when I had finally finished. “What’s next?” they’d ask, and react with disbelief when I told them I’d be going to England to study more formally. “Will you have to learn another language?” one asked. I reminded him that our mother tongue came from our mother country… In Stratford Upon Avon, I, along with my fellow students, became a fixture in favored study spots as well (Boston Tea Party, Caffè Nero, Starbucks, Royal Shakespeare Company Café, The Other Place). I encountered much less surprise over the idea of studying Shakespeare; we were, after all, located at ground zero of the Shakespeareverse. The queries centered more around why a woman of “a certain age” would leave her life behind to throw herself into a graduate program in a foreign land. I always deferred to another eloquent English author for my answer: “If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad” (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey).  Basically, I told everyone, I ran away from home.
  4. Self study vs. formal education – Getting my butt in the chair was by far the hardest part of the first project. I am basically lazy and effort-averse. So even a Shakespeare passion as strong as mine had to compete with, well, everything else for my attention. I’d set a goal of one to two hours a day of reading or writing, but often fell short of even that goal, what with the sirens of yoga, lunch with friends, Facebook, and polishing my nails calling my name. But once I did sit down and dive into the works – even the less than stellar ones – they always rewarded me for my efforts. It was immensely satisfying to put small pencil checkmarks next to each play title in the Riverside Table of Contents each time I submitted a blog post. As elated as I was to complete the project, I also suffered a distinctive sort of post-partum depression. My raison d’etre seemed to vanish like Prospero’s magic once I’d closed that book for good. Going to classes was both easier and less lonely. I had to be somewhere specific at an appointed time, and found roomfuls of bright, engaged students and blindingly brilliant professors. The resulting intellectual exchanges stimulated my brain in ways that it hadn’t been… well ever before; at least as far as early modern England was involved. The papers, while infinitely harder to write, had short and specific deadlines, so procrastination was a luxury I longed for and attempted arduously, but simply didn’t have.   Interestingly, the dissertation felt much more like the initial project. Classes ended around the ides of March, and it was due on September 13. While we had planning meetings and guidance sessions, the whole aim of the dissertation is to move from being a taught student to an independent academic. It may be a baby step, but it felt like being pushed off a cliff by my benevolent lecturers. One told me, “We’ve taught you all we can about Shakespeare… you’re on your own now.” Only the stakes were much higher than before. I think The Shakespeare Diaries had about six loyal followers, a handful more intermittent readers, and a few people whose throats I shoved it down begging for feedback. No one reviewed or marked the posts; their quality mattered to no one but me.  At the Shakespeare Institute, the brightest stars in the academic Shakespeareverse read and assessed my work. The conferring of the MA degree depended on their evaluations. No matter how often well-meaning friends and family reminded me that marks didn’t matter, the pressure, admittedly self-administered in both cases, was crushing for the formal program.
  5. Writing styles – It embarrasses me to look back at some of The Shakespeare Diaries entries, especially the early ones. When I started the project, thirty-five years had elapsed since I graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont (with its attendant academic paper writing), and I only chose to write as an impetus to read. Initially, I intended simply to react to the plays; to share impressions. The essays evolved over time to include more interpretation and analysis. I began to make connections between the plays and to other literature. But they were ruefully naïve in that they were decidedly not couched in a rigorous academic foundation. They lacked historic and literary context. I submitted several of them as the writing samples required for application to the MA program, having no choice really – I had no other academic writing to submit. It was that or nothing. The tone was light, conversational, and casual. I was in for a very rude awakening when faced with the task of submitting rigorous academic level essays. The program provides an adequate level of support in the form of an online bank of assessed essays for reference, writing tutors (located 45 minutes away in Birmingham on the main campus), lecturer consultations, and peer commiseration, but the fact is that in a graduate program you’re largely on your own. I had to radically adjust my writing style to make it dry, factual, and…. boring. I had to leave impressions and opinions behind and replace them with rigorously researched and supported assertions. I spent a full day in the Shakespeare Institute reference library chasing down a concept elucidated by Desiderius Erasmus that I felt was tangentially related to a central point in one essay. Admittedly my research skills were beyond rusty, but at that level, I could not afford to be sloppy or incomplete. I learned that there is very little room for humor or sarcasm or current cultural references in academic writing (unless you have already reached the stratospheric level of Shakespeare intellectual celebrity when you earn much more leeway). In the previous project I had no one to answer to but myself. At the Institute, I had the highest possible respect for the tutors, and therefore felt immense pressure not to let them down with my work. I was indirectly competing (although my cohort provided nothing but support) with mostly students recently out of the British undergrad system who were therefore more accustomed than I to the standards expected of us. This was, in short, the hardest task I’ve undertaken. Ever. But it was also the most rewarding – far more so than the solo precursor project that led up to it.

Living and studying in Stratford Upon Avon was a dream. I pinched myself every day to be sure it was real. The trifecta of the Shakespeare Institute, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (where I volunteered in the Archives Reading Room every Thursday) formed the ideal environment for me to take my Shakespeare scholarship to an entirely different level, and I’m eternally grateful to everyone in that idyllic hamlet (pun intended) for the experience. I’m also glad I took the initiative to do the independent study because it led me to the West Midlands. I was afraid in both cases: of failure, of difficulty, and of the unknown. And while neither endeavour was easy, both were immensely rewarding.

 

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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