Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Shakespeare Authorship Question

Some time early in the semester I was randomly contacted by William Niederkorn to complete an online survey about the "Shakespeare Authorship Question" in my teaching. I duly completed the survey and have just received a follow-up e-mail with a link to the survey's results in The New York Times.

It's not particularly interesting. 82% of us (295 randomly selected Shakespeare professors at colleges and universities) think the authorship question (did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?) is irrelevant to the study of the works, and only 6% thought there was a good reason for discussing it at all. 11% said that possibly there was good reason.

What bothers me is not the fact that this poll tells us what we already knew, but that the New York Times didn't really do or say anything new or thought-provoking with the survey. The article ends with an anonymous Shakespearean wishing more people were as interested in the plays as they were in the authorship question, evidently a sentiment most of us echoed in our responses.

But why do a survey like this anyway, if you're just going to conclude that "Professors believe in him"? The tin echo of the language of religious faith aside, what's the point? It would've been far more interesting to interview professors about their pedagogy and methodology- how do they teach Shakespeare to undergraduates? To graduates? The authorship question has never been taken seriously by most of us, but the stability of the body of work known as 'Shakespeare' has already been toppled by scholars of material textual studies, and that some 14 years ago.

Do we all combine history and research in our teaching? Do we talk about "the genius" of Shakespeare in our 100-level courses, push students to discover textual contradictions (perhaps put there by Shakespeare himself) in our upper-level undergraduate seminars, and then ask our graduate students to accept the fundamental instability of the material text and the consequent loss of 'Shakespearean' identity? Has anyone been able to present a consistent picture of Shakespeare scholarship to their students of all levels? I think we are constantly lifting 'Shakespeare' up and breaking him (or it) down in our teaching, and also in our scholarship. I would have liked the New York Times survey to have done something more with its assessment: It's not simply that most of us don't think the authorship question is relevant; it's that we're asking our students to engage with the text in (frequently contradictory) ways that will seem new and exciting to most armchair Shakespeareans. Shame on this article for not articulating that.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Stuff I Learned in English Class

It's that time of year again. The time when students write silly things in their papers and I feel guilty for pumping them full of insufficient and erroneous information.

Today I learned that:

"Raping women was common in medieval times. Men would frequently rape women as a means of expressing their power and demonstrating their dominance over women."

I also learned that:

"When I say romantic love, I mean a love that hits you like a brick wall when you first see someone."

More coming up . . .

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pick Yourself Up

This is my all-time favorite number from Swing Time (1936), my all-time favorite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. And it is here, on Youtube (though you have to click on the box above twice and watch it on the Youtube site but it's worth it).

Why do I love it so much?

- Because Fred mischeviously pretends he doesn't know how to dance

- Because she's a terrible teacher

- Because when they finally dance it's like they just discovered that they speak the same language

- Because of the art deco dancing studio with the little white fence

- Because they make it seem so easy and so egalitarian

Poking my Head Up Briefly

I'm buried under a mountain of final papers and exams. Oh, about 90 of them by the end of the semester which is in about two weeks. I also have two students defending their MA theses this week and I only got the theses last week and weekend. When did MA theses become like dissertations? 153 pages, 4 chapters, a scholarly introduction and it will be longer when she adds all the footnotes she's missing. Oy, Gevalt!

Ok, that's enough for now. I must return to my little house built out of papers.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Postscript: Pseudonymous Cat

In a conversation last night at the hotel bar, another blogger asked me what my cat was called.

"Saffron," I replied.

"Oh, so it is Saffron," she said.

"Yes," I replied, looking at her quizzically.

Then we both laughed because of course she thought I might have come up with a blog pseudonym for the cat, the way we do for our friends, colleagues, partners and institutions.

"An Antic Blogsposition": On Playing a Part, Disguise, and Being Funny

I'm at a big important annual conference. And I am having a wondeful time.

Perhaps it's because I'm surrounded by Shakespeareans, but I'm thinking about plays and players today. One of the best things I've discovered about blogging anonymously (though most of my dear readers know I am much less anonymous than those blogs I love to read and support), is that it is rather like play acting. One takes on a new identity that permits a liberty of language and expression only associated with performance and with assuming a role. In the same way that Rosalind-as-Ganymede really begins to relish the rhetoric, wit, and play of her newfound pants role, and Hamlet is able to transcend class barriers by insulting Polonius and ceding the platea to the grave-digger's joke routine, blogging under a pseudonymous identity permits a certain freedom and jouissance.

Which makes me think about a discussion I had over lunch yesterday with a gentle and sage senior professor at a small obscure university who expressed such a delight for our profession that it momentarily humbled my vaulting ambition. We were talking about Shakespearean clowns. He laid out his theory that clowning and "clowniness" is transferrable from character to character on the Shakespearean stage. Wit is, in other words, infectious, and easily picked up by characters surrounding a clown. He cited Viola's playing with Feste in Act V of Twelfth Night and of course Hamlet and the Gravedigger.

Since I have been investigating the philological and cultural impact of "antic/antique" for some time, I brought up the connection that Margreta de Grazia makes between Hamlet's "antic disposition" and clowning, that to have an antic disposition means to play the fool on the Renaissance stage (and to play the medieval vice character on the Renaissance stage). He concurred with me very graciously.

But what my research on "antic/antique" has also uncovered is that "antic" frequently meant "disguised" in the Renaissance, so in many ways it's not just about clowning but also about the way an assumed identity allows for a freer circulation of wit, humor and social critique.

Which is precisely what pseudonymous blogging at its best is all about. And that is the reason why it has to continue. At the conference, I may or may not have privately "made discovery" of a number of pseudonymous bloggers I greatly respect and depend upon for their humorous critique and celebration of the profession. However whether this is true or fabricated, I shall vehemently refuse to "delate" on them. Also, if wit is indeed transferrable, perhaps some of it might rub off on me.

In order for the academic blogging community to survive, we need to maintain their antic dispositions: Let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of our time. And they are also very funny.