Summer/Fall 15 Playhouse Insider: Now on Sale!

I’m pleased to announce that the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of the Playhouse Insider is now on-sale in the Box Office! Here’s a sneak peek at what’s inside:SF15Cover

Artists:

I’m delighted to have an article from Kate Powers, the last person to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the ASC, back in 2011. While Midsummer is always a crowd favorite, Powers initially felt some hesitance to tackle the project – but rehearsing the show helped her find the same love we at the ASC hope you’ll feel for this year’s production.

In Matt Davies’s piece, you’ll hear from an ex-Antony in his own words. Davies played the role for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, under the direction of our very own Ralph Cohen. While Cleopatra often receives more attention as a famously challenging role, Antony comes with his own set of expectations and imaginings, and Davies will lead you through his exploration of them.

Finally, as our current tour prepares to embark on the first phase of their journey in September, I thought you would enjoy a look at what life on the road is like – and what it means to come home to the Playhouse. Patrick Poole and Lexi Braverman of last year’s Method in Madness tour share their experiences in an interview with Education Artist Lia Razak Wallace.

Scholars

Our first scholarly article illustrates that, at the Blackfriars Playhouse, research and practice are always deeply intertwined. Amy Grubbs shares her observances from working on The Winter’s Tale as a member of Mary Baldwin College’s 2014-2015 MFA Company, Turning Glass Shakespeare.

I’m tremendously excited to offer an article from Michael Poston, a friend from the Folger Shakespeare Library. As technology continues to advance, editors across the world are engaging with new ways to present Shakespeare’s texts. Poston uses some examples from 1 Henry VI to illustrate the challenges of tagging a Shakespeare play for digital mark-up, and the result is a fascinating look at the underpinnings of early modern texts in the modern age.

With the 8th Blackfriars Conference coming up in October, we decided to showcase some thoughts based on a paper from a previous conference. Matt Kozusko’s article on humor in Hamlet is precisely the blend of sharp, amusing, and insight that we prize in the presentations at each biennial gathering, the topic Matt chose also offers a great transition from our Spring to Summer season..

Audience

We’ve just wrapped the 2015 No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, and in 2016, we’ll be taking the team abroad again. Find out what traveling to London to study Shakespeare is like from 2013 camper Lia Janosz – and learn why she considers Dr. Ralph the Indiana Jones of early modern theatre.

Finally, teacher Katrien Vance shares her experience – and those enjoyed by her students – in bringing ASC Education to her school for an exploration of Macbeth and Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions. From special effects to the nuances of rhetoric, her class dove into the work with great enthusiasm – and the pictures from their stage blood workshop are not to be missed!

If you’re interested in contributing to a future issue, please send me an email with your proposal: cass@americanshakespearecenter.com.

–Cass Morris, Academic Resources Manager

Summer/Fall 2014 Playhouse Insider: On Sale Now!

The seventh issue of the Playhouse Insider is now available at the Blackfriars Playhouse Box Office. Here’s a sneak peek at the articles within, exploring the shows of the 2014 Summer and Fall Seasons:SF14InsiderCover

  • What is it that most defines Cyrano de Bergerac? His panache. ASC Education Artist Natalia Razak explores “what it really means to live, love, and die without compromise.”
  • Jeremy Fiebig of the Shakespeare Standard and Sweet Tea Shakespeare examines characters as actors in Macbeth and Hamlet, with particular attention to how the titular men fit into or fight against their own stories.
  • Former ASC actor Luke Eddy, now teaching at the University of Central Oklahoma and at Oklahoma City University, discusses how playing Antipholus of Syracuse in the ASC’s 2008/9 touring troupe helped his own journey of self-discovery.
  • What makes Macbeth and other villains “break bad”? Benjamin Curns, a longtime ASC actor and fight choreographer who is now pursuing an MFA at UNC Chapel Hill, explores the nature of villainy in Shakespeare’s plays.
  • MBC student Sarah Martin discusses the rehearsal process behind the MLitt program’s 2012 production of Pericles, including the dramaturgical information on the play’s sources which contributed to the cast’s stylistic choices.
  • Bob Jones, who holds an MFA from Mary Baldwin and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Austin, discusses his experience directing Edward II at the Blackfriars Playhouse in 2008, focusing on the relationship between Edward and the audience.
  • What’s Shakespeare like at a re-creation of one of his other playhouses? Katherine Mayberry of Pigeon Creek Shakespeare shares experiences from actors and audiences at the Rose Theatre in Twin Lake, Michigan.
  • Did you know that our Director of College Prep Programs is also a champion of under-appreciated early modern plays? Kim Newton celebrates Fair Em, which had its North American premiere during this summer’s ASC Theatre Camp.
  • Last year, the ASC passed a major milestone: completing Shakespeare’s entire canon in its 25th year, and audience member Tim Hulsey has seen all thirty-eight plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Find out what keeps him coming back, season after season.

Pick up your copy of the Playhouse Insider at the Box Office for just $5 — a perfect companion to your playgoing experience. The issue not only contains the brilliant words of these contributors, but full-color photos from ASC productions, as well as from performances by MBC students and the ASC Theatre Camp, and from the Rose Theatre.

Winter-Spring 2014 Playhouse Insider Now On Sale

The Winter-Spring 2014 issue of the Playhouse Insider, celebrating the shows in the Actors’ Renaissance Season and the World’s Mine Oyster Tour, is on-sale now in the Box Office and will soon be available for purchase through our online shop. CoverWith this magazine, we hope not only to introduce readers to the fascinating shows in these seasons, but also to provide a spectrum of viewpoints from the wonderful scholars, artists, and audience members who love these plays as much as we do.

In this issue:

  • Frequent ASC patron and blogger Adrian Whicker discusses his love for the Actors’ Renaissance Season and chronicles his reviews on the Mid-Atlantic Traveler.
  • Amanda Trombley, Director of Education at the Southwest Shakespeare Company and MBC MFA graduate, delves deep into her experience playing the role of Evadne in a 2011 production of The Maid’s Tragedy.
  • Jade Eaton, ASC patron and No Kidding Shakespeare Camp participant, compares Carlo Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters with Richard Bean’s adaptation One Man, Two Guvnors and tells us why she’s so excited to see The Servant of Two Masters at the Blackfriars Playhouse.
  • Eliza Hofman of Chicago’s Two Pence Theatre, another MBC MFA grad, shares her insights on the role of Celia in As You Like It from the 2009 MFA production directed by Ralph Alan Cohen.
  • University of Delaware Professor Emeritus Lois Potter analyzes the performance history of Othello, with special attention to how the central roles have developed over time.
  • ASC actors René Thornton Jr. and Benjamin Curns talk about playing Othello and Iago with an MLitt class in a conversation recorded by Kim Newton, ASC Director of College Prep Programs.
  • A Dramaturg’s Corner features five things you might like to know about Henry IV, Part 1, including a family tree to help you keep all of those dukes and descendants straight.
  • Former ASC actor Daniel Kennedy relates his discoveries and experiments in directing Richard II for the 2013 ASC Theatre Camp.

Would you like to write for an upcoming issue of the Playhouse Insider? Email Cass Morris to find out more.

Second Issue of The Playhouse Insider — Now on Sale!

I’m pleased to announce that the second issue of The Playhouse Insider is now available for purchase online. You can purchase access to the downloadable PDF or you can request a mail order print copy. Print copies will soon be available for purchase in our box office at the Blackfriars Playhouse as well.

Inside This Issue:

  • Introducing the Summer and Fall Seasons and the Almost Blasphemy Tour.
  • Nick Hutchison, director of our 2004 The Importance of Being Earnest, discusses the challenges and opportunities presented by producing an 1895 play on an early modern stage.
  • Ralph Alan Cohen, the ASC’s Director of Mission and director of this season’s Henry V, shares his thoughts about the play as Shakespeare’s essay on the theatre and imagination.
  • Touring actors Denice Burbach and Rick Blunt talk about the unique life they live on the road with the ASC on Tour.
  • Christina Sayer Grey examines the storytelling structure of Shakespeare’s romances, specifically the devices at work in The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale.
  • Eminent Marlovian scholar Roslyn Knutson discusses why Tamburlaine is her personal hero.
  • Teachers Kerry Kisa and Linda Nicholson share tales of what makes trips to the Blackfriars Playhouse such a transformative experience for their students.

I hope you enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the Summer and Fall Seasons and the Almost Blasphemy Tour. I’ve already begun putting together the articles for our Winter-Spring issue, which will highlight the shows in the 2012 Actors’ Renaissance Season, and which will also check back in with the Tour in preparation for their Spring Season residence in the Blackfriars Playhouse.

Preview: The Playhouse Insider – Summer 2011

Summer at the American Shakespeare Center is an exciting time, with two troupes in rehearsal, preparing three seasons’ worth of new shows. The Summer issue of The Playhouse Insider will offer readers an exclusive look at the making of the eight plays that comprise these seasons. The issue will be on sale in the Box Office or by mail order in a few weeks, but for now, I thought I would give our blog readers a special preview of what will be in the issue.

In this issue, our Artists section features two directors and two actors. First, Nick Hutchison shares his experiences directing The Importance of Being Earnest for the ASC back in 2004. Producing Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play presents different challenges in an early modern space like the Blackfriars Playhouse, and not all of them stem from Wilde’s expectation of lights and dropped curtains. The text also asks different things of actors and directors: “Where Shakespeare has unfathomable depths, Oscar is all surface, and rejoices in the fact. Start to try and analyse the text as you would in Shakespeare, and it doesn’t work, but when you luxuriate in its brittle elegance, its superficial brilliance, it comes alive, clearly and hilariously.” Hutchison confesses that he was initially skeptical of Earnest‘s playability on the Blackfriars stage, but that he ultimately found that “the play doesn’t just survive the transfer to the Blackfriars but rejoices in it.”

Our second director’s piece comes from our own Ralph Alan Cohen, who will be directing Henry V for the Fall season. Cohen explains his admiration for the play he describes as “an odd work.” He sees Henry V as Shakespeare’s first experiment with deconstruction and as his “great essay on the power of an audience.” After all, the Chorus explicitly instructs the audience on what they will have to do with their imaginations to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” Cohen sees this play as Shakespeare saying to his viewers: “Here are some Lego pieces – a bunch of well-written speeches and a few great, stand-alone scenes. Make a play, Audience, have some fun.”

Rounding out the Artists’ section, touring troupe actors Rick Blunt and Denice Burbach share their experiences of life out on the road. They discuss issues both professional and personal, from the challenges and opportunities for discovery presented by having to adapt to new spaces to the sense of community they build in towns across the country, from the reality of living out of a single suitcase to the great adventure of traveling the United States. The Almost Blasphemy Tour takes off for the first leg of their run in September, returning to the Playhouse for the holiday season in December. Summing up their experiences on tour, both Rick and Denice express that the process is an ongoing one, a continual process of learning and of change. Rick says that he continually strives to discover “how to get better, how to be better,” while Denice states, “It’s unlike any job you will ever have in your life. I forget sometimes how unique a path we’ve chosen.” For ongoing details on where the tour is headed, friend us on Facebook or check out “ASC on Tour” on our website.

Since the ASC focuses so strongly on research and education, we ask leading minds in the field to share their thoughts on our upcoming plays in our Scholars section. Roslyn Knutson, Professor of English, Emerita, at the University of Arkansas and President of the Marlowe Society. Knutson shares what makes Tamburlaine so fascinating for her, from the visually striking stage moments to the challenge of a modern actor who must “negotiate with [Edward] Alleyn’s ghost” in performing this larger-than-life role. Tamburlaine is Knutson’s hero, she says, because “his exceptionalism is not just the testosterone of Marlowe’s mighty line. It is also the charisma of the over-achiever.”

Our second scholar is our own Christina Sayer Grey, who examines the storytelling patterns in Shakespeare’s Romances, two of which the ASC will have in production this year (The Tempest, opening June 24th, and The Winter’s Tale in the Almost Blasphemy tour). As Grey explicates, the thread that links the Romances is “a shared concern with the stories of lapses in historicized time – the space between something being lost and its being found, the time between Before and After.” While The Tempest and Cymbeline dramatize only the gap itself, Pericles provides a triptych of Before, During, and After, and The Winter’s Tale shows a diptych of Before and After. Grey examines how these different structures bend the typical expectations of Comedy and Tragedy, creating the nebulous generic classification of the Romances.

Finally, our Audiences section in this issue focuses on our student audiences. Two teachers, Kerry Kisa of Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach, VA, and Linda Nicholson of Highland Springs High School in Henrico, VA discuss how bringing students to see shows at the Blackfriars Playhouse and using the ASC methods of teaching through performance has enriched their learning experience. Kisa describes how her students last year explored the staging of Othello, arguing over the intricacies of bed placement and actor blocking. “As I stood watching my students quarrel over the scene, I couldn’t help but think, ‘I’ve got them.'” Nicholson talks about the “Blackfriars Fever” that has taken over her school, where students scramble to be the first to sign up for field trips to the Playhouse. “One young lady told me she went the first time as a means of missing classes, but after the show, she wanted to hide in the bathroom and live in the playhouse.” While we’re pretty sure the Playhouse staff would have some strong opinions about that, we love the enthusiasm! Both Kisa and Nicholson share their students’ opinions about an active exploration of Shakespeare in their own words, and it’s wonderful to see how much they’re enjoying what they once dismissed as boring or irrelevant. If you’re a teacher who would like to bring your students to the Blackfriars Playhouse, read up about our matinees or contact Group Sales Manager Ben Ratkowski.

Putting this issue together has me excited for what’s coming up at the Playhouse over the next few months, and I hope it will imbue all of you with the same eager anticipation. I’ll be sure to let everyone know when the issue goes on sale — look for the announcement early in July.

"But give me leave to try success": Goals and Achievements from 2010 to 2011

Yesterday, I served as the recorder for the ASC’s strategic planning meeting, which meant I had the privilege of listening in on several of our department heads and board members as they decided how we want to most focus our company’s efforts. Between that and the expected slew of New Year’s Resolutions I’ve been seeing around the Internet, I’ve been thinking a lot about goals and planning. I’ve been with the ASC for just over six months now, so this seems as good a time as any to look back and see what I’ve done so far as a part of the ASC Education team.

2010 Achievements

  • New study guides. When I came on in June, I took this project over from Christina, who had already started us down the new road. These guides were my first project at the ASC, and I’m ridiculously proud of them — they’re so much more directed towards our mission than the earlier generations of guides were, and they’re designed to help teachers get the students on their feet so they can explore the plays as they were meant to be experienced.
  • The Playhouse Insider. This is a huge thing, because we’ve never done something quite like this before. I’m so pleased with how it turned out — the articles are great (thank you, contributors!), the layout is beautiful, and there’s so much room for growth.
  • Growth of the blog — That’s right, this blog. We now get almost 900 hits a month, and that average is rising all the time. So thanks for reading, everyone! I’m so glad to have you all here.
  • Increased confidence in leading workshops, seminars, etc. I’ve gone from basically shadowing Sarah to feeling capable of developing and leading workshops on my own, and it’s been a blast. Whether it’s talking to high school students or retirees in the Road Scholars program, I make new discoveries each time I have the opportunity to share Shakespeare with a new group.
  • Tracking web mentions of the company. This project is ongoing, but I’ve been using Google Alerts to let me know whenever someone out there in the ‘tubes is talking about the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse. It’s been fascinating to see where we get mentioned (it’s a great way to keep track of our touring troupe, for one thing!), and it’s also made sure that I get to see what people are saying about us in blogs and reviews from outside the Shenandoah region.
  • I’ve learned how to use Google Docs. This program has made such a huge difference to how education has been able to build documents, refine language, and otherwise communication.
  • Twitter presence. Brand-new for the ASC this year, the whole education department got on Twitter back in the summer. I currently have 53 followers from all over the US and the UK, and the whole experience has been wonderful so far.
  • Facebook growth — Together with the marketing and development teams, we’ve seen steady and significant growth in our “likes” and followers on our Facebook page over the past six months. I use Facebook a lot to redirect to our website or to this blog, and it’s definitely increased traffic.

Not bad for six months, I think. I’m feeling particularly pleased because so many of the projects under my purview contribute to one of the company’s main strategic goals, of enhancing our company’s visibility in the world at large. ASC Education had a great year overall in 2010 — our summer programs were nearly at capacity, we had thousands of students in for school matinees, our seminars and Little Academes all went so well — the whole department has a lot to celebrate.

So, with those things achieved, or at least put into action, where do I want to be by this time next year? Here are my professional goals for my work in ASC Education in 2011 — things I’d like to improve on, expand, or achieve.

2011 Goals

  • 6 new study guides in enhanced format. With help from the rest of the education team, I’ll be building guides this year for Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Richard III, Much Ado about Nothing, and Julius Caesar, and ideally, I’d like them all in the spiffy format our Othello guide was in this year.
  • Online resources for students. Our study guides, as they are, are geared towards teachers; we’d like to re-purpose some of those activities and to build some new projects that we can put out on the web to help students who are looking for resources on Shakespeare.
  • Expand The Playhouse Insider. I’m so excited about this project, and I want to make it even better in 2011. More articles, more world-class scholars as contributors, and, hopefully, a wider readership.
  • Read the Complete Middleton. Okay, this goal isn’t strictly professional, but I’ve had the Middleton Complete Works since last Christmas, and I’ve only cracked it open a few times. This year, I want to read as many of his plays as I can — especially since the ASC has started producing so many of them.
  • More Twitter followers — I’d love to break 100, at the least.
  • Continued growth of blog popularity — Since we went from practically zero to 900 views per month in just the last five months of last year, I’m going to aim for 2000 views a month by the end of 2011.
  • Use all of these social media connections to further relationships with other Shakespeare organizations, both in the US and internationally.
  • Host a successful Blackfriars Conference. This is obviously far from my sole responsibility, but ASC Education will be busy with this through much of the year. I want the conference to run as smoothly as possible, for all of our visiting scholars and other participants to enjoy themselves, and for everyone to learn a little something and come away with some new ideas.

I think it’s going to be a great year. We in ASC Education have so many exciting plans and things we want to make happen, and we definitely have the drive to get to our goals. I love working with Sarah, Christina, Doreen, and our interns, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the interns that will be starting in January, as well as newest team member Tom, who’s recently come on to help with our summer programming.

How about you folks? Any Shakespeare-related resolutions? I know there are several reading challenges floating out on the Internet, or maybe you’ve set a personal goal. Share, if you have — I’d love to hear about it!

The Playhouse Insider

I’m in the process of finalizing the premiere edition of The Playhouse Insider, the magazine that the ASC is producing, and I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell the Internet something about it. It looks fantastic, and I pretty much can’t wait to get it out into the universe for public consumption. I’m so excited about this project and the opportunities it’s going to have to grow in coming years.

We’ll be putting this publication out twice a year, in December to preview the Actors’ Renaissance Season, and in June to preview the Summer and Fall Seasons. Our goal for this magazine is to provide the readers with a look into different experiences of early modern theatre at the Blackfriars Playhouse. We’ve solicited articles from ASC actors and artists, from renowned scholars, and from members of the ASC community, and as a result this first issue has so much quality material. Whether you’ve been coming to ARS shows since they began in 2005, will be joining us for the first time in 2011, or are just interested from the far-ranging Internet, there will be so much in this magazine for you to enjoy.

Our artists’ contributions include a brief history of the ARS. I’m really glad we got this into print, because up until now, there hasn’t actually been any codified explanation of just how the ARS came to be. Now we’ll have it all set out for our own institutional records, and the information will also be available to any scholars or patrons who are interested in how experiment. If you’re unfamiliar with the Actors’ Renaissance Season, the basic concept is this: after years of adhering to Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions, the ASC wanted to push further and experiment with Shakespeare’s Rehearsal Conditions, putting on plays the way the King’s Men and other companies in the 16th- and 17th-centuries would have: without a director, working from cue scripts, making costume and prop and music decisions on their own, and setting their own rehearsal schedules. I think the ARS shows have so much energy and spirit — they’re just electrifying to watch — and it all comes out of the drive and ingenuity of the actors.

Those actors contributed to our artistic-focused articles. One is an in-depth conversation with veteran actor John Harrell, who has not only been an actor in every ARS so far, but who also has a hand in cutting the scripts for the season. Harrell talks about his process cutting scripts, the fun in working with unusual texts, and what he’s looking forward to tackling as an actor in the 2011 ARS. We also have veteran actors Rene Thornton, Ben Curns, and Chris Johnston sharing some of their favorite moments from Ren Seasons past. In both of these interviews, the articles make it so easy to see the actors’ enthusiasm for the ARS. They really seem to delight in the ownership of the plays that this season gives them, and they revel in the freedom to let their creativity take over.

We’re also excited and privileged to have some great articles from our scholastic community. Carole Levin, the Willa Cather Professor of History and Director of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Nebraska, contributed an article on the anonymous play Look About You, which meshes high history, low comedy, and lots of disguises. The play takes place during the reign of Henry II and features a young Robin Hood. Levin’s article examines the play in relationship to the rest of the Robin Hood saga and to other plays of the early modern period set during the reigns of the early Plantagenets. Carole gave me something great to think about in viewing this play as a sort of prequel to Shakespeare’s King John, which I’ll definitely be giving thought to in my continuing exploration of how early modern plays reflect the English sense of national identity. Continuing on the history theme, Glenn Schudel, an MFA candidate at the MBC program for Shakespeare in Performance and a dramaturgical intern for the ASC, provides us with a look at the “unlikely heroes” of Henry VI, Part 3: Margaret and Richard. Schudel considers their treatment within the play and the historical maligning of their characters in his examination of these two marginalized figures. His writing is witty and elegant, making for an article that is both informative and fun to read. The last scholastic contribution is my own, which I mentioned back in October, looking at Adriana (from The Comedy of Errors) and the tradition of Shakespeare’s wives. Though The Comedy of Errors, an early play, has its share of flaws and, plot-wise, is definitely among the least original of Shakespeare’s plays, you can see in it, and particularly in Adriana, the seeds that will continue to grow through the rest of his career. All three of these articles demonstrate the kind of educational insight that we prize here at the ASC, offering readers a glimpse into the intellectual intrigues surrounding these quirky plays.

For the last division of the magazine, we have the contributions from audience members and observers. Director of Education Sarah Enloe shares her experience working with A Trick to Catch the Old One with our No Kidding Shakespeare Camp for adults. The camp participants did a read-around of the play back in the summer, and Sarah talks about the insights gleaned from working through an unfamiliar text. We also have a great piece for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of the ARS, written by Rhonda Knight, Professor of English at Coker College, who spent the 2010 Ren Season observing rehearsals. She got to watch the construction of the plays in action, and her article is like a mini-documentary of the process. Finally, Cheryl and Mark Keeler, two of our regular patrons, explain why it is their family loves the ARS season so much. Their piece expresses the effervescent joy that I know so many of our audience members feel when watching Ren Season shows.

All in all, I’m ridiculously pleased with how attractive the magazine has turned out. The layout is accessible and inviting, and the pictures really capture the frenetic energy and wild creativity of the Ren Season. My favorite picture, from one of my favorite almost-leapt-out-of-my-seat-with-excitement moment from the 2010 ARS, is on page 21 — but I don’t want to ruin the surprise by telling you all what it is.

I’ll be posting again early next week, when the magazine will be available in the Playhouse box office and free-of-charge online. I’m so looking forward to putting this out so I can hear what everyone else thinks about it.

"Better than thy dear self’s better part": Shakespeare and Early Modern Marriage

One of my current projects is the compilation of a magazine designed to preview our Actors’ Renaissance Season. I’ll be talking a lot more about that project when it’s nearer to completion, but for the time being, I’m working on my own contribution — an article on The Comedy of Errors. I’ve chosen to focus on the things in the play which are surprising, despite it being, in many ways, Shakespeare’s least original and most traditional play.

The idea for this article came out of an activity in the study guide I prepared for the play. We’ve retooled a section that used to be called “Viewpoints,” which was initially a rather vague catch-all for things that didn’t fit into other categories. The section is now “Perspectives,” and its purpose is to help connect the dots between the world of the play, Shakespeare’s world, and the modern world. In researching this portion of the study guide for The Comedy of Errors, I went looking for different commentaries on marriage in early modern Europe. A lot of what I found was precisely the kind of misogynistic and paternalistic dictate-from-on-high which we’re often led to believe represents the monolithic opinion of all societies pre-dating suffrage or the sexual revolution. Consider the following examples:

Erasmus: The Institution of Marriage: “Maintaining a Harmonious Relationship” (1526) : “Thus the girl needs to be told by her parents to be obliging and compliant towards her husband and, if he should upset her, to give him the benefit of the doubt, or at least put up with it. She must not rush headlong into recrimination and arguments, nor flounce out of the house: in time, when life together has bred intimacy between them, it will ensure that things that upset her at first will now amuse her, and that what once seemed intolerable will prove very easy to bear. … “However, although there must be mutual respect, both nature and scriptural authority lay down that the wife should obey her husband rather than the opposite. Paul recommends love and gentleness to husbands: ‘You men,’ he says, ‘love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. But what does he prescribe for the women? Obedience and submissiveness.”

Michel de Montaigne: “On Friendship” (1580) : “As for marriage, not only is it a bargain to which only the entrance is free… but it is a bargain commonly made for other ends. There occur in it innumerable extraneous complications which have to be unraveled, and are enough to break the thread and disturb the course of lively affection”

Francis Bacon: Essays (1597) : “There was never proud man thought so absurdly well of himself as the lover doth of the person loved; and therefore it was well said, That it is impossible to love and be wise. … He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief. Certainly, the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from unmarried or childless men. Which both in affection and means have married and endowed the public.”

I think it helps to remember, though, that these opinions were as likely (and perhaps moreso) to be prescriptive, the fruit of wishful thinking, as they were to be descriptive of the reality of early modern marriages. After all, Erasmus, a Catholic priest, never married. However enlightened this humanist’s views were in many respects, on the the subject of marital harmony, he may not have been fully qualified to offer his opinion. Montaigne rarely saw his wife, and his essays indicate dissatisfaction with the state of marriage, which he seems to have considered useful primarily for procreation, and therefore necessary but regrettable. Francis Bacon suffered a jilting in his youth, and when he later married, he became so estranged from his wife that he wrote her out of his will. Are these really men whose advice on wedded bliss we want to be taking as representative of the whole of society?

Probably not — and a little more digging unearths some viewpoints markedly different from the paternalistic chorus. I thoroughly enjoyed the viewpoint of Dutch historian Emmanuel Van Meteran, who observed of English wives in 1575:

“Wives in England are entirely in the power of their husbands, their lives only excepted… yet they are not kept so strictly as they are in Spain or elsewhere. Nor are they shut up, but they have the free management of the house or housekeeping. … They go to market to buy what they like best to eat. They are well dressed, fond of taking it easy, and commonly leave the care of household matters and drudgery to their servants. … All the rest of their time they employ in walking or riding, in playing at cards or otherwise, in visiting their friends and keeping company, conversing with their equals (whom they term, gossips) and their neighbors, and making merry with them at childbirths, christenings, churchings and funerals.”

Granted, Van Meteran was describing the life of the gentry and the wealthy merchant class in London, the set amid which he had traveled and lodged, rather than the life of your average country swain, but that sounds like a pretty good life to my modern ears. It also sounds not unlike what we see of marriage in The Merry Wives of Windsor or in many early modern city comedies. I think Nell from The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Madge from The Shoemaker’s Holiday, or any of the gossips in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside would find Van Meteran’s description entirely appropriate.

A collection of essays published in 1617 (after Shakespeare’s death, but still within the bounds of relevance for the time period when looking at societal trends) featured women themselves speaking out on the matter, either under their own names or under pseudonyms. The collection was in response to a pamphlet, The Arraignment of Women, which broadly slandered the whole gender, making exceptions only for Lucretia (who killed herself after being raped), Sarah (for calling her husband “Lord”), Susanna (for “creeping on her knees to please her husband”), and the Virgin Mary. The rebuttals are furiously eloquent:

Rachel Speght: “The Worthiness of Women” (1617) : “…for man was created of the dust of the earth, but woman was made a part of man, after that he was a living soul; yet was she not produced from Adam’s foot, to be his too low inferior, nor from his head, to be his superior, but from his side, near his heart, to be his equal; that where he is Lord, she may be Lady.”

‘Ester Sowernam’: “The Weakness of Men” (1617) :”In no one thing men do acknowledge a more excellent perfection in women than in the estimate of offences which a woman doth commit: the worthiness of the person doth make the sin more markable. What a hateful thing it is to see a woman overcome with drink, when as in a man it is noted for a sign of good fellowship. And whosoever doth observe it, for one woman which doth make a custom of drunkenness you shall find a hundred men. It is abhorred in women, and therefore they avoid it; it is laughed at and made but as a jest among men, and therefore so many practice it. Likewise if a man abuse a maid and get her with child, no matter is made of it but as a trick of youth; but it is made so heinous an offence in the maid, that she is disparaged and utterly undone by it. So in all offences, those which men commit are made light and as nothing, slighted over; but those which women do commit, those are made grievous and shameful.”

The first passage struck me because I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that sentiment, slightly reworded, on a bumper sticker. The second made me think of Emilia in Othello, wondering why women suffer more for the same sins men commit so freely.

After reading these passages, I find myself yearning for a full compendium of primary sources on early modern marriage, similar to the one that exists on race. Anyone who would like to take that on as a thesis project or doctorate would have my undying gratitude. There’s just something magnificent about reading the original sources, whether descriptive or prescriptive, and finding out just how varied opinions were. I think history can sometimes get flattened in classrooms, not least to fit time constraints and to hit the main points of education requirements, and so we end up thinking of any society more than a century or so back as much less divergent and pluralistic than it really was.

All of this brings me around to thinking about marriage in Shakespeare. As I said at the top of this post, I’m working on an article on The Comedy of Errors. One of the most surprising things in the play is Adriana, the supposedly shrewish wife. I don’t want to give too much of my article away — because I’m hoping you’ll all buy the magazine — but I focus on the difference between Adriana and the wife in the source material, Plautus’s Menaechmi, who really is the most ill-tempered harpy you can imagine. Adriana, though, not only has just cause to be irked with her husband (who spends his afternoons with a courtesan), but she expresses her supposed jealousy (actually, I think, genuine heartbreak) with some astonishingly beautiful poetry. Her words of censure are nowhere near s violent or caustic as the wife in Menaechmi; she makes a personal appeal to her husband, one that calls on profoundly spiritual language. Certainly the character can be played as a shrew, and the scenes can be played for laughs, but I think that does a disservice to one of the few moments of psychological complexity in a relatively straightforward play.

I’ll leave you with part of Adriana’s speech, which is one of my favorite moments in the play. If you want to know my in-depth thoughts about it, you’ll have to pick up (or read online) a copy of Playhouse Insider when it comes out. For now, I’ll just say this: Shakespeare writes a lot about love, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more genuine, more emotional, or more heart-tugging treatise on marriage anywhere in his works.

The time was once when thou unurged wouldst vow
That never words were music to thine ear,
That never object pleasing in thine eye,
That never touch well welcome to thy hand,
That never meat sweet-savor’d in thy taste,
Unless I spake, or look’d, or touch’d, or carved to thee.
How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,
That thou art thus estranged from thyself?
Thyself I call it, being strange to me,
That, undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self’s better part.
Ah, do not tear away thyself from me!
For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.
–Adriana, The Comedy of Errors, 2.2