Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Plenary Session 5″

Hey folks! It’s Mary Finch once again to live blog this plenary session running from 1:00-2:15 pm, moderated by Marina Favilia from James Madison University.

Elizabeth Sharrett, Shakespeare Institute
Bed Curtains and the Second Blackfriars

Sharrett opens with some numbers about beds and the Blackfriars; according the numbers, beds are most frequently used in the Blackfriars space, and only three of the plays with beds performed in that space explicitly mention bed curtains. Sharret will be looking at prop beds and the details of their construction, namely the use of curtains.

Most likely, prop beds at the Blackfriars were basic in order to be changed to match the requirements of a variety of plays. For all her research, Sharrett admits that the information on prop beds is sparse and inconclusive. Nevertheless, looking at the patterns from the information we do have is worth considering.

The ambiguity about curtains comes from the assumption that all beds had them, as stated by multiple scholars including Andrew Gurr. Sharrett showed several images of different Elizabethan beds from a range of institutions that did not have curtains. Audiences and playwrights would have known about the difference between a couch-bed or a half-headed bedstead, whether on stage or alluded to. The half-headed bedstead was easy to transport and served people of varying status, therefore making it a good candidate to function as a prop bed.

Sharrett shares several instances of beds and curtains in one scene, but highlights that the stage directions do not require that the curtains are on the bed itself. A research and action exercise allowed Sharrett to experiment with staging using beds with and without curtains. We should not assume that curtains and beds must be connected, and use that to evaluate how we see the Blackfriars space and use of large properties.

Jeremy Lopez, University of Toronto
Act three, scene one

“In any Shakespeare play there is no scene more important that act 3, scene 1.”

Lopez documented the major plot points that occurs in this scene across a huge range of scenes from Hamlet to Henry V to Twelfth Night and well beyond.

“It is the structural center of any play.”

Some of the less seemingly event scene are no less important, or interesting, such as in All’s Well That Ends Well, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline. These scenes rove into mundane life, clowns, or politics–they frequently feature characters that appear for the first and last time, transitioning the tone and, often, the location of the play. These plays give a glimpse of how the play world ought to be: a place of serious politics and delightful truth. 3.2 returns to real, imperfect, world of the play with vengeance.

In the more dramatic 3.1 scenes, 3.2 echoes the preceding scene by often containing things “unseen” and heightening the drama began.

Of course, act three scene one is an arbitrary and anachronistic structure that has been added after the plays were written and published. Therefore, the point of this paper might just be “this play has definite centers.” When 3.1 is a complex scene, it will be followed by a more complex scene that echoes it through juxtaposition. When 3.1 is less complex, it creates a longing for how the world might be.

However, Othello breaks all of these rules with a clown scene dealing with honesty. Then, 3.2 briefly allows us to see Othello be a general, the thing he is best at being.

So a revision: “In any Shakespeare play, there is no more important scene than act 3, scene 2.”

James Seth, Oklahoma State University
When Merchants Became Actors: Why the East India Company Performed Shakespeare in Sierra Leone

Seth opened with a passage from the journal of trader of the East India Company recounting royal meetings, a Hamlet performance, and an elephant hunt. It is very well likely might a forgery, but is cited as the first performance of Hamlet outside of Europe. The physical journal that recounts this has been lost, throwing the accounts of performance into doubt. Many scholars doubt that a traders could have staged such complex play.

Seth is less concerned with the veracity of these accounts than what these accounts tell us about the culture of performance on trade ships. These performances might have been signs of peace and means of earning favor, and were certainly not impossible for those used to performing for foreign powers.

There are other accounts of “very fine entertainment” from other, less contested, journalistic travel narratives. The EIC had their own script to follow when meeting foreign dignitaries in order to form trading relationships. English merchants played the roles of host and guest constantly, and their safety and success depended upon the skill in their performance. Giving kind entertainment allowed the traders to bring new products, and possibly Shakespeare, around the world.

Nell McKeown and Stephanie Donowho, The University of Texas at Austin
Foul Fiends of France: Staging Interpretations of Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou

NcKeown and Donowho presented a two women show consisting of the scenes with two of Shakespeare’s most tyrannical French women. They looked to make them sympathetic and morally justified.

In the text, Joan is wildly incoherent. To make her sympathetic, they believed what she said about herself. Although the men challenge her chastity, Joan only claims sexual behavior when threatened with death. One of the difficult scenes was Joan’s rejection of her father. Interestingly, Joan does not speak at all until her father threatens to die with her, making her renouncement an attempt to save her father’s life. The second difficult scene is the moment with the fiends; what if this is the first time Joan has reached out to the devil instead of to god? In a moment a doubt and desperation, she listens to the accusations of those around her of witchcraft and tries to invoke witch craft. She even says, “help me this once” helping the interpretation that she had not used demons before. ASC actor Abbi Hawk performed the roles with this lens of interpretation. The scholars admitted that this interpretation “fights the text.”

Margaret has strong similarities with Joan in their politics, war tactics, sexual aggression, and they are both French. Margaret even enters immediately after Joan exits to die. Where Joan is virtuous, Margaret decides to “earn her titles” that the men give them. “They have a shared experience of disempowerment and danger.” The only thing that makes Joan and Margaret monstrous is their gender.

The harshest scene for Margaret is when Margaret kills York. York does not have a good record: he killed Joan and did not care that she might have been pregnant. Margaret appeals to the audience to remember all of his wrongs. She is not a murderer, but giving justice.

Playing these women as evil is interesting, but not the only choice for interpretation.

William Proctor Williams, University of Akron
Cecily Neville’s Parenting Skills

Williams began by giving a brief history of the life of Cecily Neville, the mother of Richard III and his brothers. Although she is important, she seldom appears in historical plays, one of the few exceptions being Shakespeare’s Richard III.

One of her most famous scenes, in act four scene four, is when she curses Richard III on his way to Bosworth; however, this story has no basis in fact. Nevertheless, this moment is excellent theater even if it is political propaganda. ASC actors John Harrell and Abbi Hawk staged the moment. Although the cursing is not historical, the Duchess’ opposition to Edward’s marriage is historical. Again, the actors staged this moment from Haywood’s play.

Despite slight reconciliation, there was never a full forgiveness. Neither of her sons listened to her advice, despite her desperation. In both cases, her harsh mothering makes great theatre.

Peter Kanelos, Valparaiso University,
Hamlet and the Art of Memory

“Theater is the art of memory” where actors defy the gravitational pull of forgetting lines and cues. Like memory, theater is also transitory. Even our clearest memories are imperfect and fading.

Francis Yeats suggests that Elizabethan theaters might have been “memory palaces.” Memory was understood in spatial terms. For Cicero, the key to memory is sight.

Therefore, the art of memory is the striking arrangement of distinct images in a unique architecture. So Shakespeare arranged theater properties in such a manner. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s play most focused on memory, and indeed it was branded into the mind of Elizabethan audiences by previous versions of the story.

Shakespeare interrogates memory in Hamlet through a number of artful emblems scattered throughout the play. Memory is mentioned from Hamlet’s first scene to the final scene: “Heaven and earth, must I remember”… “Rights of memory in this kingdom.”

Memory itself instigates the action, since the ghost is a figure of memory. The ghost calls Hamlet to remember, not vengeance. After the ghostly encounter, Hamlet looks to write down all that has happened, rather than grasp his sword. Of course, memory is always contested, as we see when Ophelia attempts to return “remembrances.” A manner of madness was even called “forgetting oneself.” Most famously, the skull represents remembering death, or more specifically, remember Hamlet remembering death. Perhaps forgetting might have been better. Looking at death, Hamlet does not think of his father, but a fool.

Using the signet ring of his father to avoid death and return to Elsinore, Hamlet comes into his own title, but also forgets his mission; neither his father nor the mission are mentioned again in play.

(Kanelos barely finished his sentence as the bear stalked across the stage to pounce.)

— Mary Finch
MLitt Student at MBC Shakespeare and Performance

One thought on “Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Plenary Session 5″

  1. Pingback: Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Liveblogging Masterlist | ASC Education

Comments are closed.