17 September: What’s aught but as ’tis valued

This, the title, is of course from everyone’s favourite play, good old Troilus and Cressida. We had that as our set play in the Cambridge tripos back in the days, so I feel nostalgic about it. I actually quite like it, less in the ‘oh, beautiful’ way, but rather ‘oh, interesting!’. Questions of honour, loyalty, the curious deflation upon fulfilling desire, how the past (or what we think it is) reaches into the present, the entrappings of myth, creating a perpetual loop, the tricks language can be made to play, and of course, most prominently, the relativity (or not?) of value.

Nothing has intrinsic value, Troilus says at the beginning of the play, discussing whether or not to persue the war with his brother Hector who wants to give Helen back to the Greeks. We assign value to something, and so, if we say Helen is worth all the pain and awfulness of war (though is he really convinced that it is so? does it matter?), she is. If we say the annotations and underlinings of the first folio in the Free Library of Philadelphia are made by Milton, then they are so.


An old supervisor of mine, Jason Scott-Warren from Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, has published a blog entry on the Cambrige Centre for Material Culture website a week ago which has made big waves in the scholarly world (and had, dare I say it, a small ripple effect in the cultural scene beyond that, see a Guardian article on the discovery). Having read Claire Bourne’s article describing the marginalia in the book which she locates anywhere between 1625 and 1660, Jason had a look at the handwriting and had a stroke of insight (if he’s right) that the hand looks like Milton’s in the few witnesses we have of him.

The reader of the folio made meticulous corrections to spellings, metrical irregularities, and general textual lacunae such as supplying missing lines from other quarto editions of plays. A proper editor. There are also some mark-ups and underlinings, probably referring to commonplacing, or general highlighting of nice passages. More thoughts, wordish criticism, is absent.

Jason provides some photos of the annotator’s hand and habits of forming letters, and tries to parse these with photos of Milton’s hand. Yes, things do look similar. But is it enough? Is palaeographical evidence sufficient for such a remarkable allegation? Maybe it is. Maybe the informed opinion of experts is enough, and goodness we need to listen to experts in today’s anti-education world. But maybe the wish is father to the thought. A little bit at least.

To Troilus’ case for the relativity of worth (one man’s beautiful is another man’s ugly), Hector replies, not less passionately,

But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.

There’s something timeless and absolute in things that are worthwhile – and at the same time we choose to invest in it, or not. It’s both, Hector says. Troilus and Paris continue to press for war with, perhaps, somewhat unconvincing unsavoury metaphors (and different designs: Paris wants sex, Troilus wants occasions for glory), and Hector eventually gives in, a bit too fast. He, too, is a soldier, after all. He, too, is trapped in his story that already has an end for him in store.

What is aught but as ’tis valued? If we want this to be Milton’s copy of Shakespeare, we will find proof enough for it in his writings.

What irks me, though, is why do we jump to the conclusion that the hand is a man’s straightaway?

3 May 2019: Shakespeare in Translation: A Conference Report (German Shakespeare Society annual conference)

Fabulous. A fabulous conference, and anybody who was not there definitely missed out on some great research, trends, and activities. Luckily, the German Shakespeare Society conference happens every year, most of the time in the beautiful town of Weimar, so make sure to get there in 2020 when it’s all about Shakespeare and dance, apparently (to be confirmed soon).

For sundry weighty reasons, I only came to the second of three days, Saturday, but the programme as a whole really looks amazing, plenty of theatre and museum visits to opt into, and great international speakers like Warren Boutcher, Rui Carvalho Homem, and Alessandra Petrini (programme http://shakespeare-gesellschaft.de/en/conferences/upcoming.html – it’s in German, hm, though the programme is not…). My own panel in the morning was packed with brilliant early career presenters, giving provocative lightning presentations, summaries as follows:

Christine Schwanecke, junior professor at Mannheim University, spoke about self-translation in Henry IV, asking just why are there so many apparent re-caps and repetitions of the plot. (So translation in the sense of offering the same in a new form, form as language, not as in from one language to the other). Scholarship (she mentioned my old friend from Cambridge Callan Davies here, woop woop!) tends to give practical reasons, that theatre goers were dropping in and out of the playhouses buying snacks, and things and got too drunk to follow the linear action properly, circumstances which playwrights accommodated for by including micro-summaries of the plots. Christine disagreed, and explored two types of repetition, that is, diegetic and mimetic, the former being reports and messages recapping action, the latter referring to play inlets such as dumbshows and the like. She suggested these two kinds of multiple repetitions show that history (who’s in, who’s out, to speak with Lear) has little to do with God-given determination, but is made by narrative, that is, rumour. Through the insistance of re-telling events, Shakespeare emphasises that it’s the stories we choose to repeat which cause new stories to emerge and so on. An eternal spinning-off. Somebody asked an interesting question on whether we can at all speak of an original, then, if all sort of comes out of itself in an ever-circling spiral, as it were, and Christine said she deliberately avoided speaking of original and imitation, because she believes that’s not even the point of Shakespeare’s recapping. I’m not sure I do justice to Christine’s paper, but this is what I got while pre-occupied with my own paper which followed.

Then, it was my turn, and I spoke about shrew translations, or rather translation of women, see my previous post. I’ve put my research together in an article which submitted to this year’s Shakespeare Yearbook call, fingers crossed y’all can read about it next year!

The next mini-panel were Emilie Ortiga from Le Havre, and Jonas Kellermann from the University of Konstanz. Emilie’s paper looked at how Shakespeare trickled into France, focussing on Balzac’s reception and circulation of him. She mentioned a great instance from a Balzac novel (I missed which one) where a woman is singing the willow song from Rossini’s opera Otello, creating multiple echoes back to the Shakespearean original. The singer works through her grief about being cheated by her husband, while realizing her own attraction to another man who is in love with her,

and at that very moment of singing is staring at her intensely. She falters, which foreshadows her own relationship with this man, which, if we think of the lyrics from Shakespeare rather than Rossini, we already know even then (‘I’ll couch with more women, if you’ll couch with more men’). Note well that there are different versions of this popular ballad, some of whom do not include mutual cheating. Check out Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook for this one, and also publications by Linda Phyllis Austern. Having worked on Shakespeare, music, and memory in my PhD, I really loved this beautiful intertextual knot.

Jonas’ paper went really well with Emilie’s (and also spoke to my past research!), treating ballet performances of Romeo and Juliet, that is, the translatability of Shakespeare into dance. Usually, the ballet set piece of RJ is the pas de deux, the most intense duo dance, witness performances of Prokofiev’s opera. As Jonas said, ballet is all about tricking gravity, becoming air, ether. At least, the woman’s part is. All men do (or most of their function in ballet anyway), is lift women into that state of weightlessness. The aim is to show off legs and feet, basically. Although this can result in quite intense intimate emotion-laden dancing, it also means a discreteness, a lack of melting into one-ness, between the male and femal dancer. And that, surely, cannot be the point of Romeo and Juliet. Jonas, then, presented on a performance by Sasha Valtz of the ballet using the technique of contact improvisation, a form of modern dance from the 60s which is torso-based rather than leggie, as it were, and in which dancers give and take the weight of each other in continual action and reaction (called ‘listening’, or ‘noticing’). That means sometimes Romeo is carrying Juliet, and sometimes Juliet is carrying Romeo. Here’s to feminist dancing. This equality and closeness, Jonas mentioned, also communicates through the lovers’ linguistic reciprocity, and their rhyming intimacy. He mentioned my article on dance, rhetoric, and cognition in the brandnew Oxford Handbook to Shakespeare and Dance, which was very kind of him – somebody’s reading my stuff! Feeling happy and sheepish at once.

The next panel featured Marie Menzel, a PhD student at the Free University of Berlin, talking about how to translate Tragedy (yes, capital T) into the 21st century through the example of recent British stagings of Richard II. She looked at the Hollow Crown film of 2012, an RSC production from 2013, and a Globe one from 2015, realizing that all of them had changed one particular detail: where the text suggests Exton is the murderer of Richard, these productions shifted the act to Aumerle. Marie asked herself why this was the case, offering a possible answer in the dynamics of revision, the need to make the play (and Tragedy in general) relevant to modern audiences. In all versions, Richard and Aumerle had kissed before, making the subsequent murder all the more, well, tragic, placing the reasons for the catastrophic events on interpersonal grievances rather than, for example, divine-predestination, the rise and fall conception of Tragedy, the Elizabethan understanding of it. Tragic affect is created through the (added? emphasized?) queer love story between the king and lord, which is supposed to make the murder more intelligible to us. I came out with lots of questions, a good thing I guess, and lots of disagreement, for example with Marie’s statement that a modern audience cannot empathize with certain circumstances or understand conceptions of Tragedy anymore; that things have lost their relevance; that we need stories to change in order to enjoy, appreciate, or even get what’s going on. I strongly disagree with that, and one does not need to go far to look for even objective proof, re the Oresteia at the Globe in 2015. I think what’s more at stake in the unaccountable changing of who’s the murderer is that it’s those productions (rather than us the audience) which cannot manage the sheer randomness of the murder that happens because Exton interprets Henry’s gaze in Act 5.4. They suffer from a lack of negative capability, the frightening but all too frequent occurrence that random things can acquire so much momentum, that, restrospectively, they start looking like inevitability. Shakespeare is great at exploring that (for example in the random picking of rose colours by the factions in H6, resulting in what seems necessary but was accidental).

The last paper was a complete eye-opener. Anja Hartl, also from Konstanz, presented on myth-making in Dunsinane, a Macbeth-inspired play by Greig from 2000. I’ve never heard of this at all, and want to go off and read it right now. Anja spoke about how the play challenges neat historical assumptions by engaging with the facts of the real Macbeth’s reign (much longer and much more benign than portrayed in the propagandistic Shakespeare play). What we think we know is not what we actually know, historically speaking, under-cutting narratives (and even counter-narratives) of Scottish identity emerging from that dramatic myth. I’m so excited about the play, and want to see how it speaks to Scotland, back in its making almost 20 years ago, and today, post-referenda on independence and Brexit.

Rather than opting for papers, I participated in an acting workshop after our sessions, and after that in a presentation by Michael Mitchell on teaching Shakespeare at schools through prose spin-offs such as Atwood’s Hag-seed, or Chevalier’s New Boy – a long list that I am looking forward to diving into.

I can really recommend this annual conference which was well organized in beautiful surroundings, and featured lots of highly interesting and relevant papers, as well as other activities around drama.

26 April 2019: It’s Conference Time

What is true for battles is definitely true for conferences: one needs to pick them. When I was a PhD student, I went nerdily wild, and presented at five or six a year all over the world. But with experience and wisdom (jaded, anyone?) I now focus on what’s immediately important for my field, rather than just interesting – though nothing wrong with that if the conference is not expensive, and you can pick it up on the way to the library, as it were, rather than having to fly. Oh, all you London people, we provincials can only envy you.

So, here I am, off on a home visit in Berlin, and a little detour to the German Shakespeare Society Conference in Weimar, the town of Goethe and Schiller, one of my favourite places. As was to be expected, 2019 is all under the sign of inter-culturality and translation, both in Weimar as well as at the British Shakespeare Association conference in Swansea in July. Once again, this year more than ever, poor old Shakespeare has to serve as straw man: European for Remainers, Islander for Leavers, for or against immigration, women, gays, Jews, Blacks – you name the marginalised group or political issue, and he’ll have something to say about it, and it’s going to be what you want it to be. In any case: translation, and I’m presenting on what it means to translate women (and when women translate) across languages, plays, and times.

I’m looking at Ariosto’s 1509 comedy I Suppositi (roughly, The Changelings), George Gascoigne’s 1566 English translation Supposes, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (which uses the Supposes for the Bianca plot), and an anonymous late seventeenth-century German version of the Shrew, called Kunst über alle Künste: Ein bös Weib gut zu machen (An Art beyond all Art: How to make an Evil Wife Good – all translations here my own). Phew, that’s a lot of words to mean this: I’ll compare four plays in Italian, English, and German, and explore how the women are being treated in each of them, in the sense of how do the authors portray them in relation to genre, and the language they write in, what do they omit or add. Is there something lost or acquired in translation?

It’s exciting, and I’ve got lots to say, most of all because I’ve been working on the Shrew since September 2016 when I started my first postdoc at the University of Geneva (more info in the RESEARCH part of my page). We worked on four plays by Shakespeare which had found their way onto the continent via travel troups and in the entourage of diplomats. There are plays in Dutch, German, Danish, Czech and other European languages from pretty soon after Shakespeare’s death – not of an age, and not of one place either!

There are bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s plays in German here and there (e.g. the Pyramus and Thisbe inlet translated by Alexander Gryphius); we have given attention to those four which are extant in substantial ways, that is, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew, the play I worked on. Check out the website of the project here: https://www.unige.ch/emgs/

What we did is re-translate the plays into English since they are substantially different (all of them in prose, for one!), give them annotations that explain the German and compare the Shakespearean original, a bibliographical apparatus collating German editions, and an introduction on both the play itself, and the historical background of the travelling players in German countries at the time. It’s gonna be yuge, and it’s going to be published with Arden Bloomsbury. We hope to bring attention to the very early reception of Shakespeare in Germany and the continent in general, and to spark lots of cross-linguistic cooperation.

And now, for some late-minute paper preparation. Conference reporting to be continued tomorrow…