Having reflected last week at Wellington Festival on my lack of departmental emphasis on subject knowledge, a visit to one of the Globe’s Shakespeare at 450 lectures was well-timed to put my mind at ease. I think we are blessed in English departments across the land to be able to expand our subject knowledge at leisure; certainly, all the English teachers I have met read plentifully, visit theatres and yes – attend lectures.
Arriving, as is my wont, incredibly early, I realized too late that I was standing next to the man himself – a Brooklyn accent caught my ear, and before I knew it he was being whisked into the room. A fellow nerd looked over to me, and I saw my own ridiculous grin reflected in his. “He was right there!” we murmured to each other, in a life-affirming exchange that should warm the hearts of Shakespeare geeks everywhere.
And for the non-Shakespeare geeks, who is Shapiro? Well, he’s fast becoming the celebrity literary critic du jour. Shakespeare will always be in fashion, and Shapiro has maximized his influence through some blockbuster tomes (1599; Contested Will) as well as notable television appearances. Having seen Shapiro’s recent BBC documentary on The Duchess of Malfi, I was especially excited to view the inside of the Globe’s relatively new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker.
Neither disappointed, though the seats were about as comfortable as you would expect from a theatre created by the Globe. James Shapiro came onto the stage to silence an excited applause with a single hand, before explaining how the evening would go: he had, he said, a lecture prepared; he didn’t want to give that to us. He said he fed off such audiences; he wanted to know what we were interested in and that would drive his scholarship. We could ask him any question, on the condition that we stood to ask it, and it “was actually a question, and not a statement with an inflection at the end.”
And there began an evening of audience members asking any random Shakespeare question, and Shapiro answering it. The audience contained a large American contingent, which is still perplexing me but for which I imagine there is an excellent reason. One questioner asked about the reception of history plays in the US as opposed to the UK; Shapiro notes that only Richard III had been staged with success in the USA. The reason? For the UK, the history plays “are never about the past” – they are about now. They tell us as much about the politics of today as they do the politics of the Jacobeans, or indeed of Bosworth Field. Shapiro went on to advocate the importance of relevant Shakespeare, noting he would like to see a production of King Lear referencing the segmenting of Iraq.
On considering alternative “Globe theatres” (apparently they are all over the world), he noted that in an “increasingly godless age”, these outdoor theatres provide a space for us to “celebrate communally.” He also remarked that we’ve probably got the spec wrong for the current Globe – rather than 100 feet, it was probably 75 feet in width; however, as “we’re all fatter now” he still believed it was an authentic experience.
Exploring the theatre-going audience, Shapiro did some magic maths (London: 200,000 people; capacity of theatre being 1,000 people; number of plays a day/week; discounting for elderly and infants) to show that everybody went to the theatre all the time. He described the Jacobeans as “the most educated theatrical audience ever.” Later stories of interest include Ulysses S. Grant’s being cast as Desdemona in an 1840s Texan production of Othello. Despite not going on to play the part, Shapiro mused over the question of his having so directly explored the “mixed” marriage prior to the civil war.
The central message of Shapiro was that “all of Shakespeare’s plays are infused with the politics of the time”, and that we do him most justice when we also infuse him with our current concerns and politics. Asking the question: how did he walk the political line to not be punished for his representations, Shapiro noted that Shakespeare’s preservation came from “asking questions and not giving answers.”
On the authorship controversy, Shapiro noted that for 99% of Shakespearean scholars it simply does not exist. He noted that his own book on it was actually about “why smart people think dumb things,” and shared his joy at rhetorically beating to a pulp the director of Anonymous at its premiere; also delighting in its box office disaster. Shapiro closed this conversation saying he had written this book to “take one for the team”, writing it so that Shakespeare scholars “don’t have to waste another minute” considering it.
Looking forward to his next book, 1606, he mentioned he had felt uneasy about the “Elizabethanisation” of the age – half of Shakespeare’s output is Jacobean, and yet there are not even any critically acclaimed biographies of this king – we know too little about him and his reign.
A final question pivoted him back to the night’s major issue: how did he feel about “modern vs period Shakespeare”? Shapiro warned against the “fetishization” of Shakespeare – concern with doublets and sword-fighting detracts from what we should be concerned with, which is the lines: “the plays speak not only to the distant past but also to Shakespeare’s moment and also to the moment being staged.” He ended with a call to arms to directors everywhere to be always expanding the number of people interested in Shakespeare and who accept him as a part of their lives.
After this tour de force, the audience left buzzing with enthusiasm about the conversation that had just occurred, for with an audience packed with scholars bowing to a great one, the humility of the speaker had been empowering. I noted as I left the theatre, unaccustomed as I am to venture forth on a weeknight, that Shapiro had moved to the foyer to continue the conversation with individuals who were still milling around. A living critical legend.