Schofield: Revisiting ‘The Bard’ 400 years later

Special to Western News

Pictured is Enobarbus’ speech from 'Antony and Cleopatra' taken from the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library copy of 'The Second Folio,' i.e. the second edition of plays by Shakespeare. 'The First Folio' appeared in 1623.

Scholars, theatre practitioners and curators around the world are readying themselves for a huge global celebration of Williams Shakespeare and his drama.

Commemorating 400 years since the death of The Bard in 1616, Shakespeare 400 has inspired Vintage Books to launch a new series with novelists, such as Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobson and Jeannette Winterson, writing ‘cover versions’ of the Shakespeare play to which each author is most drawn. The Globe Theatre, in London, England, will transform four kilometres of the South Bank of the Thames River into a giant pop-up cinema. And here in London, Ont., in partnership with the Theatre Studies program in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, Western will stage Summer Shakespeare – at 36 years, the longest-running summer outdoor Shakespeare festival in Canada – complemented with a roster of performance-oriented events open to the Western and London communities.

For the past few months, I have been working as lead curator on So Long Lives This: A Celebration of Shakespeare’s Life and Work, 1616-2016, a Shakespeare 400 project at The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at The University of Toronto. Running Jan. 25-May 28, the exhibition will showcase a rich display of books and manuscripts relating to Shakespeare, including the only copy of The First Folio (1623) in Canada.

Helping to shape and write sections of the exhibition’s catalogue, in collaboration with a team of fellow scholars, gave me opportunity to reflect on Shakespeare as a reader of other people’s writing, and how, 400 years on, we, in turn, read Shakespeare today.

The mythology surrounding Shakespeare as the quintessential literary genius can blind us to a simple but important fact – his plays were consistently born out of others’ stories. By turning to existing stories and familiar literary genres and templates, and then reworking them anew, Shakespeare adhered to a familiar European-wide cultural practice. Whether in Florence or Frankfurt, Lisbon or London, Renaissance writers privileged modelling and imitation as central to artistic creation.

Shakespeare’s textual engagements with Ancient Rome are a case in point. In writing plays on this famed historical period, he regularly turned for source material to Thomas North’s English translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. In reading Plutarch with an eye to the stage, Shakespeare considered which sections to extract, which to repurpose, and – a point we perhaps too easily overlook – which sections to ignore. After skimming over decades of important events, pulling but a detail or two, Shakespeare might stop at a seemingly insignificant passage and make it large.

Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is a prime example.

Much of the detail from this sumptuous description finds its origin in Plutarch’s Lives. Yet, we know the passage today because of what Shakespeare did with it. North’s translation gives us a description of Cleopatra and her barge filled with excess – a poop (pavillion) of gold, sails of purple and oars of silver – to which the prose narrator remains largely indifferent. Cleopatra sailed in her boat and this is what it, and she, looked like. Shakespeare, on the other hand, transfers the words from Plutarch’s narrator to his own newly invented character, Enobarbus, who characterizes the very air and water as enamoured of the barge (and so, by association, of the queen).

If Plutarch’s Cleopatra desires immortality, Shakespeare’s is immortal. Both North and Shakespeare invite us to imagine Cleopatra on her barge, but the moment is electric to our senses only in Shakespeare’s telling of it – we hear, smell and feel the combined presence of place, space and person.

Shakespeare translated prose into drama through a combination of reading, indexing, excerpting and, of course, imagining. The actors who perform Shakespeare’s plays 400 years on follow a similar process, supplementing his words with gesture and intonation, translating silent reading in the mind to action and voice on stage.

The curatorial team behind the Fisher Library exhibition hopes to share with visitors a vision of Shakespeare’s legacy that includes not just artistic products, but a transformational process of reading that continues today. To celebrate such creativity, the Fisher will play host on Jan. 19 to a roundtable in which Stratford Festival actors gather to discuss creative exchanges between early Shakespearean texts and modern performance.

Understanding Shakespeare in terms of dynamic experimentation is likewise pedagogically inspiring. This past semester I ran an undergraduate course on Shakespeare’s tragedies, entitled From Page to Stage, From Screen to Stream at Huron.

Students in this class participated in a multi-stage project called Experiencing Shakespeare. They started by choosing a scene from one of the course’s four tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet or Macbeth). They then edited the scene’s dialogue, presenting their scholarship digitally, before performing the scene live and, subsequently, reconceiving performance for video.

The project was brought to a close with a reflective video on the various stages of the process. From the outset, groups had to decide which lines to keep and which to discard; they had to consider how a scene’s language informed pace and movement. With each new iteration of the scene, they had to rethink the relationship between medium and meaning. At every stage of this process, these students made creative decisions that would have been all too familiar to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare 400 will celebrate the achievements of one of the world’s best-known and most-performed playwrights. Possibly even more importantly, the creativity this year-long celebration will inspire us with timely opportunity to reflect, not just on Shakespeare as one of the greatest theatrical readers of his age, but on a process of theatrical reading and innovation that continues today, in our libraries, research and classrooms.

Scott Schofield is Assistant Professor of English at Huron University College.