The ISC: A Student’s Perspective

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I spent the majority of last week at a Shakespeare Institute taken over by 250 of the world’s most accomplished Shakespeareans. Unfortunately for me, I was not one of them.

You may have read about the International Shakespeare Conference in an entry posted last week by Paul Edmondson, who was an invited member. My role in the conference was as an outsider looking in on the proceedings, handing out packs to delegates, passing around a wireless microphone, setting up and manning the Bookshop’s stall, and serving glasses of Prosecco at the Hall’s Croft Garden Party. From my point of view, academia never looked so glamorous.

But my meaning in writing this blog is less an effort to drop names of prominent intellectuals whose books decorate the shelves of the Shakespeare Bookshop, and more an attempt to hold up a mirror to this blog project. It will be, as far as I am aware, the first entry to be self-reflexive, questioning its existence, its goals, where it might be headed, and if it is causing more harm than good.

In the first of many papers delivered at the conference, Professor Sharon O’Dair of the University of Alabama delivered a manifesto of sorts that came down strongly on the democratisation of Shakespeare, and this theme would be a mantra to which the delegates returned many times over the course of the week. O’Dair’s paper, “Against Internet Triumphalism” developed a vocabulary through which the delegates communicated about their varying opinions of teaching Shakespeare through social networking websites, blogs, e-news articles, and communally-monitored encyclopaedias (like Wikipedia).

There are, as I understand it, two sides to the argument. The first is the one on which O’Dair falls. She seemed to be most concerned by the de-professionalisation of the field of Shakespeare studies – a discipline that, she thinks, is losing credibility each time an ill-informed so-and-so electronically blogs that David Beckham actually wrote the plays that we all attribute to Shakespeare. And by the time fifteen of his friends ‘retweet’ the post or ‘like it’ on Facebook, it is too late. The information is out there for all to see. In this sense, O’Dair is gesturing us toward the notion that in this day and age just about anyone can be a Shakespeare scholar – not just those who have dedicated their lives to research like herself and her peers.

That is one side of the argument. The following day, Diana Owen presented the other.

In a talk entitled, “Putting our Arms around Shakespeare: The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in the 21st Century”, the Trust’s Director spoke quite openly to a room full of academics, many of which are professionally trained in scepticism. Owen detailed the history of the Birthplace Trust, explaining that for so many years it identified itself as being the guardian of Shakespeare, preserving his works and properties so that they could be viewed by the world from a safe distance. Now she feels the Trust is in a new position that longs to foster accessibility to and interaction with Shakespeare’s life and times. As such, the Trust has opened itself up to new initiatives like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. Even the blog that you are currently reading is a product of the cultural mandate to make Shakespeare accessible.

The two sides of the argument had been carefully outlined, and I found myself struggling to come to terms with my role as both a student of the Shakespeare Institute who hopes to have an academic career, and an employee of the Birthplace Trust who feels passionate about promoting public access to Shakespeare. Do I feel, as David Lindley aggressively pointed out during Diana Owen’s Q&A, that money should be put into keeping the Library and Archive open on a Monday and Tuesday rather than developing these new initiatives? Or do I side with Sharon O’Dair’s Head of School who requires the faculty to teach students using online tools like blogs and WebCT? Certainly an entry-level employee without tenure cannot, as O’Dair has done, refuse to participate in such programs.

It is a mucky situation.

I have not had a chance over the past week to come to any major conclusions about my own personal role in this debate, but I do feel confident about what this blog has and should continue to accomplish – that is, to find a medium between the two extremes and foster respect for Shakespeare. This blog allows scholars like Paul, Liz, and Nick to share their knowledge of Shakespeare, and those who have a deep love for Shakespeare, like myself, to share my opinions. What do you think is the medium between the two extremes? What do you think a blog like this should accomplish? How do you think the public should be able to interact with Shakespeare?

Recently, the editor of the New York Times banned the word ‘tweet’ from use in his publication, unless used in an ornithological sense. This is testimony to the fact that not all institutions around the world have decided to go down the road that the Trust has. I am certainly not going to say that either is right or wrong. Both sides make strong cases. Clearly, the issues here extend well beyond the world of Shakespeare. They have more to do with a world that demands the freedom of expression the and right to access information exponentially moreso than it did ten years ago. I look forward to reading feedback from everyone about these issues and future posts.

As a postscript, we would like to share a video with three clips of ISC delegates who made their way to the Bookshop over the past week and were kind enough to be interviewed for the blog. Each of them found it to be an exciting venture for the Bookshop. You will also see that even the most seasoned of academics don’t spend all of their time in the Critical Studies section!

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  • Liz Woledge

    Actually, I can’t read the full blog, I can only see the first 3 lines, am I being very dumb?

  • Liz Woledge

    Actually, I can’t read the full blog, I can only see the first 3 lines, am I being very dumb?

  • Liz Woledge

    Sure can ^liz

  • Liz Woledge

    Sure can ^liz

  • theshakespearestandard

    We've jumped into the debate at:

  • Sharon O'Dair

    hello all, i thought i'd post a comment or two concerning my paper, which aims, among other things, to get us to think about what we mean by democracy, neo-liberalism/capitalism, and professionalism–and the relationships among them. i am critical of “faux democratization,” which is what i judge most attempts “to democratize” that are made by institutions to be. (this, by the way, is one link to my earlier work, particularly “class, critics, and shakespeare.”) first, claims to democratize made by professors, theater professionals, curators at museums, etc. are made from positions of institutional power; it is assumed, i think, that the institution will always be there. my paper expresses doubt about that assumption. but even if, as i hope, arts institutions and universities aren't eaten alive by the market imperative, it is important, i think, to keep in mind the possibility that embracing market-driven democratization could lead to that end. certainly we've seen more than a bit of nibbling at the edges of our institutions.

    second, professor kate mcluskie spoke at the ISC repeatedly of the need to keep in mind the question of scale, when it comes to culture and shakespeare. one might think immediately of the size of the state's subsidy to art in the U.K. compared with the size of its subsidy to the national health. or to defense. one might think, too, of the number of hits to internet web-sites that feature pornography, compared to the number of hits to those that feature blogs about shakespeare. pornographic web-sites are vastly more democratic, no? appeal to vastly more of the demos, no? when we speak of democratizing shakespeare, we are talking about a tiny percentage of the population; might it be as small as the percentage of literate persons in 16th century england? smaller?

    before closing, i would like to suggest one example of the kind of claim i take to be faux democratization, and it is close to hand. before i left stratford, i picked up the weekly throwaway paper, which featured an article called, i think, “a bard act to follow.” this paid homage to professor wells, who is retiring from the SBT. the article also noted that “anyone” can apply to be wells's successor. but will “anyone” be selected? no. we all know this. the person selected will be an academic, a theater professional, a museum director, a director of a university, some professional with tons of experience and the ability to fund-raise brilliantly. the person selected certainly won't be an anti-stratfordian and sure won't be an unemployed 20-something, either. to say anyone can apply is faux democratization in my book. it's as faux as claiming that anyone can make a presence, with a blog, on the internet. in my paper, i quote matthew hindman, whose just published “the myth of digital democracy” demolishes many assumptions about the democratizing effects of the web. as he puts it, it may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it is excruciatingly difficult to be heard. i don't want to rewrite my entire paper, including the bits that, i hope, will be included in its revision, so i will stop here….but i will say that i am not luddite about technology; i use most of the gadgets you use. maybe not as well, but i use them! thank you for your interest in my work and i'm glad that it provoked some discussion. i hope you will read my essay at some point!

  • I don't think they are in publication. You may be best off to just e-mail the speakers directly. All the best.

  • Many thanks Elaine for sharing your experience.

  • Thanks for that. Always enjoy reading your blog.

  • Thanks for that anecdote, Garrick. All the best.

  • Thanks for the clarification Matt. Is it possible to read the papers? I suspect Sharon would agree with Diana that blogs are democratic and Diana would agree with Sharon that they are not academic so I'm not sure they are presenting two sides of the same argument, just two different arguments.

  • Having run one of the earliest Shakespeare blogs for some 5 years now, I wonder whether I'm supposedly one of those “Ill-informed so-and-so's” that is contributing to the problem. I'd like to think not. In fact, I have always gone out of the way to present myself exactly as I am – an ardent fan, a lover of the Bard and his work. At first I thought my site would attract like-minded individuals like myself who simply wanted to share a mutual love of the subject matter. But do you know what happened? Professional Shakespeareans started showing up. Book authors. Actors, directors. A number of people from Folger.

    Between us, we discussed numerous major issues – acceptance of Double Falshood as canon. The Cobbe portrait. Death masks. Did we make any pronouncements on the veracity of arguments either way? Nope. Do we claim any particular academic credit, or lack thereof, simply because the conversations took place on a blog? Nope. It's simply a forum where *everybody* can get together and discuss the topic. That's a key difference. I wasn't invited to the ISC, obviously – but Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells can (and do) respond to me on Twitter when I ask questions, and people from the Shakespeare Institute can easily find me, and participate, with a little help from Google.

    I'm lost at the thought that this can be construed as a bad thing just because of the medium. Is the academic world not already filled with so-and-so's that want to fight to the death over the claims of one Edward de Vere? Haven't they been doing so, with proper academic credentials and without blogs, for decades? Just because anybody can get a blog doesn't mean anybody will, nor that anybody else is required to pay attention to it.

  • As somebody who liked Shakespeare as a young teenager (used to stand through five uncut hours of Hamlet at the Old Vic for example) and was then put off by the dreadfully turgid and old fashioned method of teaching at my school and did not look at Will for over thirty years, I am now sticking up for the opinion of accessibility (a word I usually loathe). The cracks began to show when I took my two daughters, teenagers themselves then, to see the Ken Branagh movie of Much ado About Nothing which we saw about 15 times between us we loved it so much. Whther you like this film or not does not matter in this context, but it made me laugh and cry and made me realise that Shakespeare could be fun and enjoyable. The Globe in London opened and off I went, again with daughter, to see A Winter's Tale, not a play I was at all familiar with and was enthralled with the freshness and immediacy of the acting and the setting. Since then I have returned to see Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night's Dream, am currently in the throes of the two parts of Henry IV and am loving every minute of it. A few years ago I was thrilled to see these two plays, this time with Sir Michael gambon as Falstaff a day which left me energised and thrilled.

    When I saw the film Shakespeare in Love it struck me then as I was watching it just how much a part of me Shakespeare was and I had not realised it. The cinema audience was split between those who loved and laughed at the recognisable quotes the other half sat in dead silence as they did not understand same, but at the end when we sat and watched the actors on screen in a performance of Romeo and Juliet, we were as one in our reaction – utter joy.

    So bring on Shakespeare – go to the Globe and witness its packed audiences loving every minute; see the groundlings becoming involved with the fun and games and also note how absorbed they are in the more serious moments. The more the merrier say I….

  • I started to write a comment, but it got so long I turned it into its own post — so my response is here, at the American Shakespeare Center's education blog: Thanks for bringing this up — I've enjoyed musing on the topic.

  • A colleague and I have been browsing through your blog and we are very impressed. I recognize a few of the names of your contributors from UCL from the British Graduate Conference. In a way, I am glad to see that you are struggling with the same issues. I loko forward to following you. I think that our blogs can work well alongside each other.

  • I did mean strongly against. I have not read O'Dair's book. That is strange that she would take such an opposing stance from what she did in her recent paper. Anyway, we appreciate your comments, Andrew.

  • Garrick Huscared

    Shakespeare has been considerd out of the grasp of everybody for too long. Dr Owen is absolutely right to open up things to all people. Let the academics continue in deep thought. Let the rest of us do what shakespeare intended. Laugh, cry, be shocked and absorbed in his story telling. I dont want to analyse every word. I want to feel shakespeares work as a part of me. For the fun of it. I heard a lady come out the Courtyard and proclaimed 'well that was not what shakespeare inteneded I am sure. Too much sex and violence. The play was Romeo and Juliet. Garrick H

  • Thanks for your comments. It is important to keep in mind all of what you mention. I think my only concern would be the spread of misinformation. I don’t think any of the academics at the conference want to keep Shakespeare for the elite (at least I hope not!), but I do think they are passionate about letting people respond to Shakespeare in whatever way they would like, while educating them about the expertise that they have gathered over the years.

  • VioletleaR

    Shakespeare should not be confined to one sector of society. It is because of a restricted view of the
    topic which leads the public at large to fear even the discussion of the topic.
    All topics including Shakespeare benefit from a wide viewpoint and the use of all the different types of
    media is to be encouraged.
    I have attended the Institute and found it a worthy place to study Shakespeare. It should remain so, while promoting the Bard to the many not the few.

  • GreenThomas

    I really don't understand the concept of keeping Shakespeare for the elite and the academics. Shakespeare wrote for the masses at a time where plays had to command the respect of a very noisy theatre experience.

    Equally Shakespeare knew what worked, borrowed stories and made them his own. The language is one aspect of the plays that ios important, but its not everything. I have absolutely no problem with comic book versions, social media plays (like the recent Romeo and Juliet) modern re-writes for TV, soap opears stealing ideas etc, etc.

    There are many who would not come into to contact with Shakespeare if it weren't for these reinventions and the introduction is not the end of the story. You have to remember the language can be heavy going. I remember finding Julius Ceasar at the RSC hard going. But there are plays that are more accessible and the rich language is a joy.

    Even a facebook page saying “I love Romeo and Juliet” is gaining an awareness. I don't have to like a modern re-write or want to watch Eastenders brutal murder of a Shakepearian idea – its not the aim.

    Accessibility is opening up the opportunity to gain something from the text however small. Shakespeare is the source of most fictional novel titles and has spawned millions of stories. Even if you want to keep Shakespeare “pure” it is too late.

    Let's remember the view of Shakespeare we have is coloured by the resurgance of an interest in him over the last two centuries long after his death. Let's all remember it is the academic who wants to change what Shakespeare and keep him as a member of the elite. Countless books on how Shakespeare was anyone other than Shakespeare, ignoring the countless descriptions of south Warwickshire that anyone from the area could point out today.

    To me Shakespeare is played best when the meaning is fully understood by the actors and the singsong shakespearean delivery is kept only to where it is relevant and where bodyl;anguage is as important as the words. That's not to say that the language is not vital – more that audiences don't have to be in a special club to understand the play and what is going on.

    Rather than tell the plebs that they are “wrong” about Shakespeare, we should be finding out what Shakespeare actually means to them.

  • Matt Kubus

    Thanks for your comments. It is important to keep in mind all of what you mention. I think my only concern would be the spread of misinformation. I don’t think any of the academics at the conference want to keep Shakespeare for the elite (at least I hope not!), but I do think they are passionate about letting people respond to Shakespeare in whatever way they would like, while educating them about the expertise that they have gathered over the years.

  • Matt Kubus

    Thanks for your comments. It is important to keep in mind all of what you mention. I think my only concern would be the spread of misinformation. I don’t think any of the academics at the conference want to keep Shakespeare for the elite (at least I hope not!), but I do think they are passionate about letting people respond to Shakespeare in whatever way they would like, while educating them about the expertise that they have gathered over the years.

  • This is a question I've been occupied with recently, though for different reasons. I'm the editor of an online Shakespeare magazine that's been online for nearly a year now. Our goal is to make Shakespeare more accessible to our blog readers and also to encourage and engage those students who think Shakespeare is too difficult or not interesting. We started with a group of writers that were all on my master's programme with me (the Shakespeare MA at UCL), and have since expanded to include some PhD candidates from other universities and a few writers without a degree in Shakespeare studies but who have been working in the field for a number of years. The reason why we're so careful both about who is writing and what they're posting is that we want our website to gain that level of credibility that O'Dair seems to have been concerned about. I suppose we fall in between these two camps as well–we don't want to position ourselves as academics, removed from general fans, but we also want to distinguish ourselves as an authority on our subject. I think that's what makes our website useful and popular.

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  • Interesting post. You say Sharon O'Dair “came down strongly on the democratisation of Shakespeare” – do you mean strongly for or strongly against? In her book, 'Class, Critics and Shakepeare' O'Dair is a passionate advocate for the democratisation of culture but you seem to be setting her up in opposition to Diana Owen as if pro and anti-blogging equates to pro and anti-democratisation. Is that what you mean or have I misread you?

    From my own perspective, I see the internet as a culturally democratising medium just as cheap paperbooks and television were and online access to academic journals and books has transformed academic research. The problem I have found as a teacher is that while students can usually grasp that a published book probably has some status as an academic reference they have to be taught to distinguish between their Google search results and learn that a blog written by a 15 year is not the same as a peer-reviewed academic journal paper!

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