I’m just back from the very enjoyable conference I wrote about in my last blog, ‘Where has all the Verse Gone? Shakespeare’s Poetry on the Page and on the Stage’, hosted by U.C.L.A. (13-14 May). There can be few events which are more deeply satisfying to an enquiring mind than a really good gathering of peers who are will to engage and talk about shared interests.
The founder of the feast, Jonathan Post (and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry, due next year) was compared to Owen Glendower in Henry IV Part One, who stands for the literary and musical possibilities of language in opposition to Hotspur who dismisses ‘mincing poetry’ (3.1.130). This international gathering was definitely on the side of Glendower when it came to poetry, verse, and song.
Gordon Teskey (Harvard University) started us off with an overview of ‘Shakespeare’s Styles’. Linda Gregson (University of Michegan) identified an ‘open voiced’ poetic diction in Thomas Wyatt and Shakespeare. Melissa Sanchez (University of Pennsylvania) spoke about ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ and the Sonnets with regard to female sexuality and gender. Anne Lake Prescott (Barnard College, Columbia University) brought to our attention the language of ruination in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Sophie Read (University of Cambridge) spoke about Macbeth and the Sonnets, finding examples in both of Shakespeare’s mind ‘outdistancing itself in understanding.’ Joshua Scodel (University of Chicago) looked afresh at how the drama of The Rape of Lucrece is conveyed through its poetry. Helen Wilcox (Bangor University) played the piano for us in her exploration of Shakespearian song settings from the 18th century to the 1970’s jazz setting by Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. Gavin Alexander (University of Cambridge) looked at how Shakespeare uses songs. Belen Bistue (Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, Argentina) found political inscriptions in Spanish translations of Shakespeare’s poetry. James Logenbach (University of Rochester) looked at the effect that Shakespeare’s thought has had on creative writers right up the present day. He considered the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and the poetry of Louise Gluck as fascinating illustrations of Shakespeare’s influence.
There were twelve papers, all of which were in part characterised by generous response of the sixty or so strong audience on each of the days.
But did we hear the sound of Shakespeare’s word music?
My last blog attracted some interesting comments about acting styles, oral cultures, and the effect that music has on our brain. One response recalled attending a workshop on the Sonnets with John Barton, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen. Dench let the words ‘rest on the breath’; McKellen was more emphatic about their actual meaning.
At the end of my own paper, ‘Shakespeare’s Words and Music’ I played an extract of Richard Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, in which the lead soprano, the Countess, realises that she can’t have words without music, or music without words: the two are interdependent. All of us readers will have different ways of confronting this inescapable truth. But it’s music as well as meaning that I want to hear.
After I’d spoken, the great Bruce Smith (University of Southern California) spoke on a related matter: ‘Finding One’s Footing in Shakespeare’s Verse’, which you can hear and see him discussing in the above post.