Fall MLit/MFA Thesis Festival – Session 1

Welcome back to another live blogging event here at the American Shakespeare Center. We’re pleased to bring you the Fall 2010 Thesis Festival, featuring presentations of the works of MLitt and MFA students in our partner program at Mary Baldwin College. We’ll start off with three papers in our morning session, followed by an early afternoon session after lunch, and then a later afternoon session after a tea break. There will be a separate blog post for each session, which I’ll be updating as we go.

Miranda as Native: An Exploration of Sexual Politics and Cultural Hegemony in Caribbean and African Postcolonial Adaptations of The Tempest
presented by Amy L. Bolis

Presentation begins with Maxim Overton reading a speech of Caliban’s, while Kimberly Maurice and Johnny Adkins echo with descriptions of the character from elsewhere in the play. Amy explicates that the language reveals the “legacy of colonization,” and that in The Tempest, we see Caliban as the colonized and Prospero as the colonizer, and then asks — where does that put Miranda?

She links this idea with the influence of Shakespeare in colonized regions, introducing the idea of examining post-colonial adaptations of The Tempest from regions such as Zambia and Trinidad. Amy posits that casting Miranda as “native to the island” gives her rape the connotation of the results of colonization; she then explains that Johnny will be portraying Prospero throughout her presentation, Kimberly Miranda, and Maxim Caliban. Amy then helps out those of the audience un-familiar with the term “post-colonial,” situating the term in helpful concrete terms, with the unifying “central concern of cultural power”.

Amy then discusses a tradition in productions of The Tempest which focuses on spectacle, highlighting spiritual themes and quotes like “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” and “O brave new world.” Amy asserts that these productions take a reluctant approach to the colonial implications. Casts Prospero as sympathetic, makes audience “inclined to pardon Prospero”. Her actors then presented a scene which foregrounds Caliban’s implied inferiority; she highlights Miranda’s complicity in this view, that the gentle girl who sympathized with the shipwrecked sailors could not help “being socialized into” the view of Caliban as part of a “vile race.”

Amy goes on to note that the post-colonial adaptations she studied give Miranda a greater connection to the island than does Shakespeare’s play (where Miranda willingly leaves). “She becomes the battleground upon which the battle for serenity is being fought.” She then considers the sexual politics at play, from Prospero’s obsession with Miranda’s virginity to the implications of sexual relations and procreation between two different races. To illustrate this, Amy has her actors portray scenes from the four adaptations she considered:

1) from Elizabeth Munez’s Prospero’s Daughter, with a scene illustrating Virginia’s innocent inability to differentiate between races. Also highlights Virginia’s association with the island, which she comes to consider herself indigenous to, though she was born in England; Kimberly delivers a monologue where Virginia explains this.
2) from David Wallace’s Do You Love Me, Master?, where Miranda describes herself as “cross-grained,” underscoring her mixed-race background. Prospero, despite having no respect for Miranda’s mother, holds his daughter to a higher standard, seeking to match her to the only other European on the island. Miranda retains an awareness of her mixed-race throughout the play.
3) A Tempest, by Aime Cesaire, which higlights Miranda’s comfort and familiarity with the island, which she wishes to share with willing listeners. Cesaire even reassigns some of Caliban’s lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Miranda, changing the tenor of those lines.
4) George Lamming’s novel Water with Berries, which Amy uses to discuss the sexual politics, as the Miranda-character describes the graphic rape which dissociated her from identification with the island. The islanders here become the savage stereotype, but only because they have learned it from their colonial masters.

Amy finishes by presenting the idea of stories as the means of identification for conquered peoples. The presentation of Miranda as native “foregrounds questions of indigenousness” and allows The Tempest to become an enduring arena for a discussion on the power dynamics between colonizers and the colonized.

Rosalind and Cleopatra: The Androgyne in Performance
presented by Lem A. Prades

Lem begins by connecting the heroines of Shakespeare’s plays to the sexual/gender ambiguity of Queen Elizabeth, at once the ultimate female and a removed, and thus asexual, force. Using this conception of Elizabeth, Lem suggests a connection between Elizabeth’s persona to both the comic cross-dressing heroines and the primary females in tragedies who also take on masculine attributes. Lem states that the aim of his presentation is to examine the “collapsing masculine and feminine features in Shakespeare’s dramatic features,” using the comic example of Rosalind and the tragic example of Cleopatra. Lem suggests that “Rosalind and Cleopatra exercise the greatest degree of autonomy,” layering sexual identities that “perpetuates autonomy over the self and others.”

Lem begins by explicating the theories of gender and performativity that he will be working with throughout his presentation. This introduces the third gender, the androgyne, taken from Plato, an idealized figure synthesizing both the masculine and the feminine attributes, transcending duality. So where in this do Rosalind and Cleopatra most neatly fit?

Lem suggests that the most basic level of gender synthesis is transvestism, seen literally in the comedies, but more figuratively in the tragedies. Rosalind initially uses transvestism as a defense mechanism, but it evolves into a more enduring identity. Lem quotes Marjorie Garber, who attributes Rosalind’s continued cross-dressing, even after the threat has been neutralized, to an essential effect on Orlando’s development, because Rosalind can only get close to Orlando in the guise of a boy. Cleopatra’s transvestism, on the other hand, is less obvious; she occupies a male position in society, as ruler. Lem relates societal disease with this idea, despite the present of female monarchs in the 16th century, to Knox’s “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” This discomfort appears in the play, when Enobarbus questions Cleopatra’s right to take part in the wars; “Enobarbus sees Cleopatra as a distraction rather than the ruler responsible for the kingdom,” and he relies heavily on insecurities related to sexuality. Lem states that the Romans see Cleopatra as “too feminine when she shouldn’t be, and never quite feminine enough” when she ought to be.

Lem goes on to discuss the power wielded by Rosalind and Cleopatra through love. He looks at Rosalind in 3.5, when she discovers audacity after watching Phebe and Silvius. Rosalind there discovers that she has attracted Phebe despite her harsh words; Phebe explicates her attraction, and reveals her attraction to both masculine and feminine attributes. He then compares this to Enobarbus’s initial description of Cleopatra, wherein Cleopatra asserts her power and sovereignty. “Her creative personality has little to no end of masculinity in it.” Yet she never gives over entirely to masculinity; nor does Rosalind. Both blend their power plays with feminine mischief and coyness, and each woman exercises teasing command over her partner.

Each woman, though, Lem notes, resigns herself to a role as “feminine counterpart;” both women agree to follow rather than to lead. Rosalind tells Orlando, “I am yours,” handing herself over to him entirely. Interestingly, Cleopatra’s declaration comes with her death, as she prepares herself as a bride for the already-dead Antony, and takes her doom to her breast, mixing the most life-giving and supremely feminine image of the nursing mother with the poison of death. Lem finishes by asserting that transvestism provides opportunity for change, and for exploring the grey area between the binary opposites of masculine and feminine.

‘Sblood, Zounds, and Marry: Oaths as Indicators of Character Change on the Early Modern Stage
presented by David C. Santangelo

David opens by suggesting that oaths and expletives can express, not just momentary frustration or reaction, but aspects of character or of change. He grounds uses of these in the context of an Act which levied fines on any uses of profanity, as well as several other laws, from the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I, with penalties ranging from 12p fines to whippings. He also refers to some polemic attempts by clergymen to “dissuade Englishmen from swearing.” These acts also led to some instances of censorship, particularly in the Caroline period.

David moves on to explaining that his thesis focuses on the oaths of Hamlet, Othello, and Iago, but for the purposes of this presentation, he’ll be looking solely at Iago. Iago’s opening line, which includes “‘sblood,” indicates that Iago’s tendencies lean towards the blasphemous and the profane. He continues to swear throughout his first scene, “blaspheming three times in quick succession,” indicating that he “is not only vulgar, but may be of a questionable moral standing.” When talking to Othello, however, Iago adopts the more unusual “by Janus” as his oath of choice; the god involved, the double-faced god of doorways and of looking both forward and backward, however, may relate to Iago’s own two-faced nature. His oaths become milder when he feels the need to maintain his “honest” affectation. David also asserts that Iago’s jesting, mild oaths demonstrate his disregard for his wife (later augmented by, well, murder).

David goes on to explicate the other character attributes that Iago’s oaths reflect: his arrogance and that he is a liar. As a self-proclaimed villain, his frequent blaspheming underscores his surety in his villainy. He makes false oaths, swearing “by this hand,” by an honor the audience knows he does not truly have. Iago thus tailors his oaths to who is listening and to the ends he desires to achieve. David sees these techniques as evidence of Iago’s intelligence and cunning.

David also looks at the timely use of “As I am an honest man,” which he paints as “a cunning comment on Iago’s character.” It comes when he has just, quite dishonestly, manufactured the brawl which destroys Cassio’s reputation. He thus perpetuates his honest image while in the process of wreaking chaos. He sees this, and other instances of saying one thing while meaning another, as evidence of Iago’s “Janus-like character.”

Iago’s final oath, “Zounds,” in Act 5 brings him back around to the foul-mouthed soldier we saw in the first scene; with his plans discovered, he can safely drop the honorable image and revert to form. Iago’s profanities, in this instance, come from his inability to control the situation. He thus begins and ends the play with blasphemy, abandoning the more elegant and crafty oaths used elsewhere in the play. “He is, at his core, vulgar.” David ends by asserting that oaths exhibit character change and personality, and that studying these oaths can help an actor when working through roles.

And that’s it for Session 1 — I’ll be back at 2pm (Eastern) for Session 2.