Shakespeare’s Plays as Primary Sources: The ASC at ACMRS

Last week, Sarah, former-intern Liz, and I went to Tempe, Arizona for the Arizona Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies conference. Their theme this year was Performance and Theatricality, so we saw it as a great opportunity to introduce the idea of the ASC to a new region and a new group of scholars. ACMRS scholars are primarily historians, not theatre practitioners, so they’re not a group that we’ve had as much interaction with. Sarah will be writing more about our experiences as practical-minded scholars in a more theory-driven world, but I wanted to share a general summary of our presentations. We decided to focus our panel around the idea of using Shakespeare’s plays as primary sources, capitalizing on the idea of his plays as both products of and reflections of late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England.

Liz, presenting at her first conference, opened our panel with an overview of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions and how we learn about them through the plays. She discussed the indications in the texts that audience contact was not only in existence but actively planned for, incorporated into the structure of the plays. Sarah and I demonstrated by using one of our favorite “casting the audience” scenes: Portia and Nerissa describing in 1.2 of The Merchant of Venice. Liz also talked about Shakespeare writing for specific members of his company, about the early modern rehearsal process, and about the use of cue scripts. Sarah and I got up again to show how Shakespeare could lead an actor to an emotional response just by capitalizing on the effects of inserting false cues into a speech. In another example from The Merchant of Venice, Shylock speaks Salarino’s cue, “have my bond,” four times before it’s actually Salarino’s turn to speak. The effect is one of mounting frustration on Salarino’s part, entirely appropriate to the scene. Liz also discussed the primacy of language when studying Shakespeare, as his language demonstrates the efficacy of his stagecraft. She ended by talking about Shakespeare’s epilogues, which frequently ask pardon and approval from the audience.

Sarah, on her third conference since 2011 started, presented on using Shakespeare’s plays as primary sources for social history. She suggested that early modern theatre reflects early modern English societal customs in many ways, and that if the conventions on the stage were wildly different from those practiced in reality, the audiences would have known that and perhaps found the plays less compelling. Her paper narrowed the broad range of social history down to courtship, particularly the rituals of obtaining (or evading) parental permission for marriage. Sarah looked at, among other scenes, Petruchio’s wooing of Katharina and the dowry negotiations at play in The Taming of the Shrew.

My paper, and also my first presentation at a conference, was on the use of Shakespeare’s history plays to teach British history — not only as a structural outline for learning about the monarchs of the medieval and early modern periods, but also as a kind of historiography to learn how the English of Shakespeare’s day thought about their own cultural heritage. I built this paper off of a project from last year’s pedagogy course, where I designed a semester-long class around the subject. As I’ve worked further on the concept, I’ve aligned it strongly with the “Perspectives” section of our Study Guides, which encourages students to make connections between the world of the plays, Shakespeare’s world, and their own world. In my proposed course, I posit comparing modern American cultural myths to those that the English propagated about their own heritage. Finding the similarities and examining the differences could be a powerful way for students to relate emotionally to the past, and Shakespeare’s histories, filled with such captivating personalities, are an advantageous way to engage students with the concept.

I think the attendees received our panel quite positively. Several scholars stuck around after we finished, wanting to talk about the Playhouse, our programs, and the ongoing process of research and learning that occurs as we continue to work through early modern texts in our space. We also got to have, at the closing reception, a nice chat with the director of ACMRS, who wanted to know if we had any material for pre-schoolers. (Not just yet, but our new ASC Family Coordinator, Ben Ratkowski, may have something along those lines for us soon). I’m hoping we’ll see some of our new friends at the Blackfriars Conference in October.