Speech at the SAA Business Meeting

This past Wednesday, April 5, I was asked to say a few words about my concerns regarding US border policy and its effects on the Shakespeare Association of America. I thought I might share that speech below. I didn’t get to read it myself because the heavens were being hammered by Thor himself, sadly, though I want to thank SAA President Heather James for reading it into the record for me.

I would like to start off by acknowledging that this conference is taking place on the traditional territories of the Creek peoples, whose settlement, Standing Peachtree, lent its name to the street upon which this hotel stands. I mention this because such an acknowledgement highlights the empty seats that have always been among us, unrecognized.

The SAA has prided itself for years on its seminar model; it is what makes the SAA unique. For several decades now, the tables that we meet at have been growing larger as more scholars have been welcomed. Chairs have been taken by scholars of all sexualities, nationalities, religions, races, backgrounds. The constitutional amendment to Article III.3 exemplifies that commitment to diversity of membership and is a part of a series of initiatives, outlined in the President’s Letter of February 2017 but begun over the past few years, to bring more people to the table.

This year we can see that we have empty seats that should be filled. LGBTQ+ scholars, Muslim scholars, black, middle eastern, aboriginal and Asian scholars are absent.

As the project coordinator for the Canadian Shakespeare Association, I know there are Canadians who haven’t come this year and who might not come again. For many who did decide to come, like myself, it was an agonizing decision weighing access and professional duties against, in some cases, personal safety and continued isolation. The SAA must address itself to those who feel that this nation does not welcome them and the changes the SAA makes to bring those people to the table must be effective and permanent, implemented as soon as possible.

To that end, I suggest the following:

  • An agile system of response to government initiatives. That is, as we only meet once a year, that means we have only one opportunity to engage in an open forum to discuss issues as a group and propose a statement that addresses the concerns of the members.
  • An online forum for all members (even if it begins as a facebook group). We need a permanent online forum (or set of online spaces) that will allow for us to discuss policy issues as they come up.
  • Podcasted/Vodcasted seminars and/or plenaries. Although electronic “presence” is never quite the same thing as physical presence, it can provide a much-needed bridge for those who have been excluded. In addition, making certain parts of the conference available publicly will help to reach out to a wider public and membership. These could also be useful for teaching and research purposes
  • A new officer of the SAA or committee of the trustees specifically devoted to addressing membership inclusivity issues.
  • A formal commitment to regularly hosting the annual meeting (say every three years) outside of the United States, be that in Canada, the Caribbean or somewhere else in the Americas.

These suggestions require, in some cases, constitutional change. As a part of a permanent process of inclusivity, however, they seem necessary. There have always been empty chairs at the table, but by making formal, permanent commitments online and in the constitution, we can hopefully supply those empty spaces.

Sustainability, History and Math

(Originally posted a few years back, thought I would share it again)


 For the past few weeks, I have been working on a project in Ontario, Canada that is looking into the future sustainability of digital projects in Canada as a part of the federal governments policy on Canadas Digital Advantage.

Because the project is based in Canada and addressing specifically Canadian concerns, we are coming to conclusions regarding sustainability that are radically different than, say, our American or British colleagues might.  For example, one of the holes in our knowledge on the digital academys influence economy comes from the sheer lack of quantitative studies regarding the cross pollination between what are (or start as) academic projects and the broader economy.  That is, no one has done any studies on the Canadian milieu, looking at specifically Canadian projects and how much those digital projects have contributed to the Canadian economy.

 The present project, which is funded by SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), is working on an incredibly, almost laughably, short time frame.  Though we expect to have a white paper ready for December 1, 2010, we are only really scratching the surface of what is out there in terms of scholarship on sustainability and are more often than not discovering that what is not out there is just as interesting as what is.

But that isnt exactly what I want to talk about

Neurotic Imaginings

All while doing this project on sustainability, I have had a recurrent image in my head.

 See, in my other life I am an early modernist.  Actually, I think of myself primarily as an early modernist who has only a tangential interest in DH and the possibilities that it offers.

 Im not so hip as to be a DH evangelical, but I do realize that the future of our discipline will involve closer integration with the digital world, to the point that those who do not stay at least partially abreast will be as antiquated in the future as bibliographic index card catalogue users are today.

 Thus, sustainability is a problem not because things will be lost it is inevitable that things will be lost but because we have the opportunity to intervene in the process of forgetting, hopefully for the better.

The image that keeps coming into my mind in this project is here.

Rithmomachia BoardThis is a game from the medieval period called Rithmomachia.  For those of you with small Latin and less Greek, , means number and the suffix derived from , meaning battle.

 The game itself is devilishly complex to a modern mind if only because it relies on knowledge of the relationships between whole numbers.  Gameplay involved moving pieces that designated whole number across a board that was twice as long but just as wide as a chess board.  One player could take the pieces of the other player by arranging the pieces/numbers in an arithmetic, geometrical or musical harmony (or any combination of them).

It was called the Philosophers Game partially because it was only played by the erudite and partially because Rithmomachia was supposedly created by Pythagoras, though that genealogy is highly doubtful.

Throughout the early modern period, the game was associated with hermetic magic and was played by some of the more well known figures of the European renaissance.

Of course, we dont know about it anymore.  It has been totally forgotten by the culture in general and by all but those few interested scholars.  Why?

Well, you see, there was another game that was introduced to Europe at about the same time as we start seeing descriptions of Rithmomachia and that game was Chess.

Both games are roughly as old as each other and both games were equally popular in the later middle ages, but only one of them has continued in cultural memory.  You can argue that the reason for that is that Rithmomachia is just inherently more difficult as a game describing musical harmonies of numbers is not as easy as, say, your pawn can open with a two space move or a one space move.

I am not convinced by that, however.

I think that the real reason for Chess living in our cultural memory and Rithmomachia as being forgotten comes down to the fact that the first universities took on Rithmomachia as a strategy by which to teach basic numeracy skills.

Its a strategy we are seeing today in the move to bring games (video games and otherwise) into the library system and into the classroom, and it is perfectly sound insofar as it does work.

If you engage students, through games, through active learning principles, then students are more likely to retain the information or skills that you are trying to teach.  So I cannot fault the medieval scholastics who decided that they would put Rithmomachia into the curriculum.  They were only doing what modern scholars are trying to do by using Mass Effect as a way to explicate narrative non-linearity.  The theory, such as it was (and is), is sound.

The thing is, as the years turned into decades and the decades turned into centuries, the university ossified, and with it, so did the game.


Universities are inherently conservative institutions as bureaucracies, they are specifically designed to make it difficult to change things.

When you have an institution such as a university taking on a new technology, like a game or a communications system, not only will it be difficult to integrate into the prevailing administrative structure, but there is always the threat that once it has become integrated into that administrative system, it will ossify.

The administration of knowledge will weave its way in and around the new technology of knowing to the point that it becomes either culturally irrelevant and forgotten (Rithmomachia) or culturally irrelevant and clung to out of a mere sense of tradition (Im looking at you, robe and mortarboard).

The point is that the cultural amnesia regarding Rithmomachia brings up some of the most fundamental aspects of sustainability insofar as we have to ask, how much can we trust universities (these incredibly conservative institutions) to sustain digital projects that are by definition ongoing sources of knowledge?

The Oxford English Dictionary is one of the longest running continuously developing projects in the academy, but it is predicated on a very conservative model of knowing that there are words out there as objects of definition and that they will be described.

No one would possibly suggest that the OED is not invested in what Bakhtin called the centripetal force, that works to bring language and meaning together under an objective umbrella.  Despite its yearly updates and continual re-editing, the OED is presenting an ossified image of the English Language and that is partly to do with the fact that it is housed under the auspices of a university.


So if we are looking to investigate long term sustainability, we have to ask the question of what are we willing to trade off?

If we want sustainability within the present institutional settings, then we have to accept the possibility that eventually, our beloved digital tool or project (be that project as genuinely useful as the Walt Whitman Archive or EEBO), will ossify and be forgotten.

If we dont change the university culture a culture that has existed for a thousand years then we are likely to simply end up with projects that are snapshots of what was rather than producers of the new knew.

If we do change the university culture, then that is a project that extends well beyond the individual institution or individual nation and demands a rethink of what it is we do in the academy, from the ground up.

Of course, in the writing of a small white paper, due in such a short time, I doubt that we will come up with anything that will possibly answer how the university as an institution can be rebuilt.

So which is it?  Or perhaps I am being reductive?

[Cross Posted on HASTAC and Sustaining Digital Scholarship for Sustainable Culture]

9 Early Modern Actors and Modern Equivalents

One thing that I’ve noticed teaching Shakespeare is that although there is a lot of attention paid to performance conditions of the early modern theatre in modern scholarship and even really wonderful recent discoveries are giving us more knowledge about the material conditions of the theatres at the time (like the discovery of The Curtain this year), students still don’t register how populist early modern theatre was.  Shakespeare has been “high art” for so long that the very thought of going to see a show at The Globe because it was fun seem alien to a lot of students.

So I figure… let’s marry contemporary popular culture and early modern popular culture and see what comes out on the other end.  Let’s find some contemporary equivalents for Shakespeare and company!

OK, maybe “equivalents” is a bit strong here given that I’ve literally never seen any of the early modern actors perform, but short of a TARDIS falling out of the blue sky onto my head, I doubt I ever will.  Then again, you who are reading this haven’t seen John Lowin act either, so who is to complain?  The relationships are all just my opinions below… It’s all about educated guesswork.


#9 – John Lowin/John C. Reilly


John Lowin was a portly actor in Shakespeare’s company who was primarily known for comic roles at first, but who was also a really deft hand at straight dramas.  He began as a hired actor for the King’s Men early in the first decade of the 1600s, but he very quickly probably became a sharer, meaning that his fortunes were tied to those of the company.  By the 1630s, Lowin was essentially acting as manager for the company.
In terms of his acting, Lowin was famous for portraying the role of Falstaff from the Henry IV plays.  (Though now-a-days we tend to think of Falstaff as overwhelmingly obese, as you can see above, Lowin may have been heavier set, but certainly wasn’t even fat by contemporary standards.)  He wasn’t just a comic actor, however.  He was the original Henry VIII in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.  He also likely played Iago, Volpone, Bosola from The Duchess of Malfi, among other roles.  Indeed, he was probably one of the most influential dramatic actors of his day while also “owning” the great comic role of Falstaff throughout his career.
Movies tend to pigeon-hole actors very quickly into a single type, be it comic actor or dramatic lead, but John C. Reilly has managed to do both within his career.  Though some might recognize him from Step Brothers or the Drunk History episode of Nicholas Tesla, he’s also created some serious, thoughtful roles in dramas like Gangs of New York and Magnolia.  He’s actually quite a brilliant actor.
There’s something a little dangerous about him – a quality that he brings to roles both comic and dramatic.  It isn’t that he is always sinister, but that even the comic roles are played with something of an edge to them such that even if he is playing a total buffoon, one is never sure if the character is going to burst out into violence.  Even when he does slapstick, the violence is never wholly cartoonish.
So, next time you read Othello, imagine a young John C. Reilly as Iago.  He’s comic, right?  Funny, right?  He can’t do anything bad… oh… oh dear.  He just did what?  Well, that’s just not nice at all.

#8 – Augustine Phillips/James Earl Jones

One of the problems with Augustine Phillips is that we don’t really know how old he was.  We know that he died in 1605 and that he specialized in patrician roles of older men, but if that meant he was himself an old man or if he was just good at playing older men… who knows?  Also, we don’t actually have a portrait of him, so I’ve just put a random picture above to give you a placeholder of sorts.

Phillips probably played Polonius and thus probably played Julius Caesar when that play was first performed.  The most cited story about Phillips, however, is that he was the one who the company turned to when they got in hot water following the Essex Rebellion.

When the Essex plotters had Shakespeare’s company perform Richard II on the eve of the rebellion as a lame attempt at anti-Elizabeth propaganda, that got the company in trouble and it was Phillips who was chosen to speak to the Privy Council in the aftermath.  Some have suggested that this was a sign Phillips kept the account books, though I think it could just be that he had a gravitas that Shakespeare et al thought would help.

And it did.  The company wasn’t even censured and very shortly later performed before the queen.

No living actor embodies gravitas more than James Earl Jones.  I remember listening to an interview with him once wherein he was speaking casually about his childhood and his early days as an actor.  His casual tone and frequent use of expletives contrasted with the expectations I have grown up with regarding his voice.  I found it jarring at first but then became even more entranced because he was still powerful, commanding, and now even more human.

James Earl Jones, to my knowledge, has never played Polonius, though I would love to see that.  The part is usually played as a bit of an impotent old man who is more there as comic relief than anything else.  I see that part a bit differently.  I think Polonius, underneath the fussy “twice a child” exterior, is a very dangerous and very terrifying man.  Here is an actor who I can see not only playing that fussiness and dangerousness, but one who I have no problems in imagining testifying before the highest government bodies in the land.

#7 – Richard (Dick) Tarlton/Steve Martin


Dick Tarlton was the premiere comedian of his day.  Indeed, he was an early example of celebrity, if you wanted to go so far, in that he was himself a draw.  Queen Elizabeth loved his work and he was a popular clown for the hoi polloi as well.  Though he died before Shakespeare really started working on the London stage, he was one of the most influential performers from the period.

Other clowns – Robert Armin and Will Kemp – drew from Master Tarlton’s bag of tricks.  He was both a physical clown and a linguistic master, whereas the clowns that followed tended to have one or the other as a specialty.  Equally comfortable with a pratfall as he was with a improvised speech of doggerel verse, Tarlton set the bar for what comedy was in the 1570s and 80s, when the theatre industry was just beginning to develop.  Heck, he was even a great musician! What more could you ask for?

In the 1970s, Steve Martin’s comedy worked on multiple levels, not unlike that of Tarlton.  He was a brilliant physical comedian (just watch All of Me and tell me otherwise!), but his stand up was also based on relatively sophisticated word play.  He wasn’t afraid to take a pratfall, but could also discourse about the comedy of existence itself.  Some of his best work was the sophisticated material like Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1991?), which is totally unexpected if you only see the silly, arrow through the head, light yuks from the 1970s.

Whereas Tarlton died, Martin certainly has not.  Martin has worked to influence an entire generation of comic, just like Tarlton.  Whereas Tarlton didn’t write anything down, however, I think that Martin’s legacy will really be felt not in his performances but in his written material.  So there are a few disanalogies here, but there are also enough analogies that I’m willing to stand by this for now.

Well, at least until I can think of something better.

#6 – Will Kemp/Will Ferrell


Unlike Tarlton, Kemp had someone to drum for him.

Will Kemp was Shakespeare’s first clown at the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and was an early modern celebrity in his own right.  When the Lord Chamberlain’s Men came together as an entity, he was one of the founding members – a full sharer, like Shakespeare himself.  This was something of a coup for the fledgling company insofar as Kemp was recognized throughout early modern London society as being the primary inheritor of the crown of Dick Tarlton.

Kemp was primarily a physical comedian who was so good at the jig that he had one named after him.  The jig was an integral part of the actor’s bag of tricks insofar as dancing (along with fencing and jokes) was part of the reason why people came to plays in the first place.  Even the grimmest of tragedies ended with all the characters dancing the play to a close.

Kemp wasn’t afraid of publicity stunts to keep his name in the public eye.  After his very public exit from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the late 1590s, Kemp decided to dance a morris from London to Norwich.  He later wrote of his experiences on the journey in Nine Days Wonder, though he died within a few years of the split with his former company.

A little dangerous, a lot of slapstick

Though the career trajectories do not match (for instance, there has been the suggestion that Kemp left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men due to alcoholism and I don’t know of anyone who has impugned Will Ferrell’s reputation in that way), nevertheless, there is one thing that you can carry from Ferrell to Kemp – comic tone.

First and foremost among the connections between the two is the fact that they are both brilliant physical comedians.  That cannot be overstated because being a good physical comedian is difficult enough, but being one whose characters embody a kind of barely concealed anger while still being pleasant is much more difficult.   Ferrell specializes in playing characters who are not just comic exaggerations, but who are slightly dangerous. Even his most “innocent” of roles, where he is a fish out of water, have an element of danger.

Kemp’s roles with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were largely skeletal structures onto which Kemp could improvise.  He could be the buffoon, and was at his best when he was looking the fool somehow, but he was a brash fool.  He probably started the role of Bottom, for instance, which, though it can be tragic-comic (see Kevin Kline’s interpretation), also allows for a somewhat more violent buffoonery than is commonly seen on the modern Shakespearean stage.

#5 – Robert Armin/Tina Fey

When I originally conceived of this list, I paired a bunch of white male actors from four hundred years ago with a bunch of white male actors today, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more it has made sense to find analogues who are not white male actors.  Anyhow, stick with me and you’ll see, I hope.

Writer, Comedian, and Snappy Dresser!

Robert Armin was a leading comedian in the early modern theatre before he was brought in by Shakespeare’s company after Will Kemp left in the late 1590s.  He wasn’t a part of the company by the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, but clearly had been integrated shortly afterwards as some people suggest that The Porter in Macbeth, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and other loquacious clowns of the latter period are all reflections of this one man’s style.

Armin was a comedian who, though not afraid to look silly, was more adept skewering the pretensions of the nobles through his tremendous wit than simply taking another pratfall.  Indeed, Armin’s work tended towards the literate, the world-weary, and the anxiety ridden.  He was a playwright himself, writing a number of understudied and never-performed works of comedy.

Armin was also a good singer – a characteristic of the early modern comedian that Tarlton embodied for the previous generation.  It’s very likely that Armin worked with Tarlton, or at least worked in his immediate shadow.  Armin’s songs have been handed down to us in the verse of Autolycus and Feste, among other characters.

Writer, Comedian, and Snappy Dresser!

Tina Fey’s career in many ways does not mirror Robert Armin’s but the one thing that she does have in common is the sense of humour.  That is, she is never afraid to play the fool, yet her fooling is itself a critique of a system that disenfranchises her.  In her most personal roles, she takes on in her roles the position of the outsider, the underdog, the woman who is not quite comfortable in her own skin.  At her most scathing, she reflects to the entitled the absurdity of their own entitlement.

It is this duality of her comedic character that seems to reflect Armin so well to me.  Armin’s characters were outsiders who could criticize the establishment with an enthusiasm that, in some ways, ought to have had him killed.  Like Armin, Tina Fey is a writer whose comedic vision goes beyond the sketch to a larger social statement.

Also, I just love the idea of watching Tina Fey playing the Fool in King Lear… especially seeing as it was probably double cast with the role of Cordelia.

#4 – William Shakespeare/Ned Beatty


What, no ruff?

OK, with Shakespeare, it is problematic to find an analogy – celebrity culture gets in the way these days of people who try to act and write.  As such, I’m just going to talk about Shakespeare as an actor rather than Shakespeare as an actor and writer.  Even though pretty much everything we have about the period talks about Shakespeare as a playwright, you can still figure out a bit about Shakespeare as an actor.

Shakespeare was called a Johannes Factotum early in his career because he did a little bit of everything – wrote, acted, etc.  I also think that this referred to his acting style.  I have no evidence for this, but I suspect that he was able to do comedy and tragedy with equal ability.  Though I don’t doubt that he was a better playwright than he was an actor, I am sure he was a strong actor.  The Lord Chamberlain’s Men wouldn’t have brought him on board as a sharer when they formed unless he was pretty competent as an actor as well as a writer.

Indeed, one thing every company needs is someone to play the “character” parts.  Not the starring roles, but the roles without which there would be no play.  The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, for instance.  Shakespeare himself performed a number of roles that could be broadly described as “character” parts.

The problem with Ned Beatty as an analogy for Shakespeare is that he’s a bit dated for modern readers, but for those of you who know what I am talking about will probably see what I mean about “character” actors.  He is probably one of the most gifted actors of his generation and has mastered everything from comedy to high drama and everything in between.

Really, its his versatility and ubiquitousness that makes me choose Ned Beatty as the analogue for Shakespeare.  He somehow manages to pull off everything from the morally compromised Arthur Jensen in Network to the oaf Otis in Superman only two years later.  At the height of his career in Hollywood in the 1970s, he was in everything, across every medium, in every genre.  Each time he appeared, he would create a character that was key, memorable, and yet never take away the lustre from the so-called “stars” of the show.

(Note – William H. Macy would probably have done as an analogue as well.  Shakespeare is a tough one.)

#3 – Nathan Field/Leonardo DiCaprio


The Original Hipster: He had a Movember ‘stache well before it was cool.

Nathan Field actually led a fairly interesting life for an actor in the early 1600s.  He was practically kidnapped out of his home, away from a theatre hating family, and forced to act in with the Blackfriars Children – a troupe of boy players.  By the time he was around 13 years old, he was acting on stage and showed a surprising facility early on with even the most difficult roles.

He probably acted in the plays of the Poetomachia, as well as some of the great comic and tragic roles of the first decade of the 1600s.  His name has been associated with many of Jonson’s works, Fletcher’s works, even Beaumont’s classic play, Knight of the Burning Pestle.  It was in all likelihood Nathan Field that Shakespeare was thinking about when he wrote the following section from Hamlet:


What, are they children? who maintains ’em? how are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no

longer than they can sing? will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common

players–as it is most like, if their means are no better–their writers do them wrong, to make them
exclaim against their own succession?

Thing is, Field became an adult actor.  Indeed, he became one of the most respected adult actors in the business.  By the time he was 29, he was working with the King’s Men and had inherited some of the most famous roles in the company.  Some critics have suggested that he kept taking on “boy” parts, which would have involved cross dressing, even with the King’s Men, though I don’t really credit this.  It has also been suggested that he took on some of the roles originated by Burbage, when Burbage left the stage, which is a theory I find much more satisfying.

In his personal life, he was something of a rake and was associated with some of the most powerful women of his day.  Which sort of reminds me of…

They even have the same moustache!  C’mon!

Granted, to my knowledge, Leonardo DiCaprio was never kidnapped from his home and forced into acting by an overbearing schoolmaster, but he certainly did show a remarkable facility for performance from an early age.  Anyone who has seen What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? will know what I mean.

Further, DiCaprio managed to transition from child actor status to adult lead status without much difficulty.  Granted, there was a period in the late 90s there when I thought that he was just unwatchable, but time has proven me wrong.  He’s actually not only grown as an actor as he has grown older, he’s proven himself to be more than just a pretty face.  Frankly, the fact that he’s subverting his own good looks in some of the films he is taking on these days (J. Edgar, for instance) is a sign of self-consciousness as an actor that really reminds me of Field’s later career.  Final point – he, like Field, has been associated with some of the most beautiful and powerful women in the world.

So, next time you read the plays, imagine a young Leonardo DiCaprio in Knight of the Burning Pestle…Then imagine him now as Petruchio in Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed.  Fun, isn’t it?

#2 – Edward Alleyn/Jack Nicholson/George Clooney


This man is Doctor Faustus.  Seriously.

I’m cheating with this one by offering two equivalents, but hopefully you will see what I mean.

Alleyn was, along with Burbage, in the top tier of actors on the early modern stage.  He was the biggest star of the early modern stage in the 1580s and 90s, first performing some of the biggest roles of the day.  Alleyn was Heironimo from The Spanish Tragedy, Tamburlaine from Marlowe’s plays, Doctor Faustus…  He was tremendously huge.

We actually know quite a bit more about him than we do other major actors of his day because he had the good sense to put all of his financial success to use.  At the end of his career, he founded a college that still stands to this day and – more importantly – still holds his papers.  Dulwich College and the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitization Project are godsends for early modern theatre scholars.

So what was he like?  In terms of his acting style, it was slightly affected rather than naturalistic.  Indeed, Alleyn and Burbage were compared in terms of the naturalism of Burbage’s style to the artificiality of Alleyn’s.  That said, his style was sufficiently engaging that myths grew up around his delivery of Doctor Faustus.  That is, it was said that when Alleyn was performing Faustus and was surrounded by devils on stage, he stopped dead, mid-line.  He realized that there was one more devil on stage than there were people in his company to play devils.  Ever afterwards, fearing that he called up Satan himself who came to watch the performance, Alleyn played the role with a gigantic crucifix on his chest to ward off evil spirits.

Now, there’s not a really good analogue in the modern world, so I’ve chosen two actors.

George Clooney makes a nice analogue if only for the fact that he is deeply involved in the good of the community and politics.  Alleyn was not just a philanthropist in terms of the founding of Dulwich College, but he was in close contact throughout his career with the elite of early modern society.  He wasn’t just an entertainer for the rich and famous, but he was able to meet with them on some level.  He was close to the engines of power in the Tudor and Stuart state.

Further, I tend to think nowadays of Clooney less of an actor and more as a producer/director/writer – which is crazy because he is definitely still acting.  Alleyn retired from the stage around 1600ish and when he did, he became something of a money man or producer behind the scenes of the theatre industry.

I don’t think I have to belabour the point that Jack Nicholson has a very particular way of delivering his lines.  It is a bit of an affectation that can be parodied (even by Nicholson himself – The Joker was something of a metacinematic statement about his own acting style), but it works tremendously well.

He’s largely retiring from acting these days, but during the 70s-90s, he was a titan of the screen whose performance style has influenced an entire generation of young actors.  I think that those who look back at, say, The Shining with nostalgic terror are in the same position as an audience of the early 1600s who thought of Alleyn in Doctor Faustus.

Nicholson created a number of roles that are still quoted, cited, and relived by audiences today, from McMurphy and JJ Gittes to The Joker and Col. Jessup.  In that sense, I see him as a strong analogue for Alleyn.

#1 – Richard Burbage/Robert Downey Jr.


This is the face of Hamlet.

Burbage came from a theatre family and worked in it all of his life.  His father set up the first permanent theatre in England (imaginatively called “The Theatre”) and Richard himself inherited the business on his father’s death.  As a young man, he was a bit of a roarer insofar as we have it on record that he got into a brawl or two.  Granted, he was protecting his family property at the time, but still…  By the time his father died in the late 1590s, Richard was already one of the most popular actors on the London stage.

Burbage was the first Hamlet, the first Othello, the first Lear.  He was the man for whom Shakespeare wrote most of his juiciest roles.  Indeed, as many scholars have pointed out, one of the reasons why we think of drama today as being the tale of one man’s journey is that Shakespeare wrote plays with a single young, male  lead actor in mind – Burbage.

When Alleyn left the stage, Burbage’s star really came out and he dominated the stage until he died in 1619.  His death prompted an unprecedented outpouring of grief.  It has been often noted that when Queen Anne died in March 1619, the nation wept and there were a few poems of commendation written, but when Burbage died two weeks later, the nation went apoplectic with grief.

As an actor, Burbage was a lead, a celebrity, who could play both comedy and tragedy with equal facility, though he seems to have preferred more “serious” roles.

Hamlet = Iron Man?

Robert Downey Jr also comes from a “business” family.  His father is a director and actor who is still working in Hollywood, so far as I know.  Further, Robert Downey Jr is a star of a level that is easily comparable to Burbage.  He can do comedy, he can do drama.  Granted, a lot of the time these days, he is doing action movies, but there is nothing wrong with spectacle.

If you don’t think that an actor whose recent work has focused on spectacle can act, please take a look at Chaplin.  He was phenomenal in that!  Indeed, part of the reason why he is so good in the spectacular comic book movies today is that he is bringing a seriousness and a gravitas to the role that only a good actor can.
I don’t have to go too far into his biography, given that he is one of the most famous stars in the world, but he had a troubled period in the 1990s, if you didn’t know.  Just as Robert Downey Jr. was a bit of a loose canon when he was young, Burbage had a tough youth, yet through it all he kept acting.  To my knowledge, he has only ever played a little Shakespeare, though I would love to see what he could do with roles like Lear, Heironimo or even Falstaff.
Granted, if he played Falstaff, they’d have to give him a CGI belly… that had a glowing circle in it.  And rocket boots.  Falstaff with rocket boots!  WHERE IS THAT MOVIE?!

1609 Burial of Edmund Coote

On this day in 1609, Edmund Coote was buried next to his wife. Who was Edmund Coote you ask? Well, let me tell you…


In 1596 Coote wrote The English Schoole-Maister: Teaching all his schollers, the order of distinct reading, and true writing our English tongue. This text would go on to become the most popular pedagogical manual of the early modern period. Along with Roger Ascham The Scholemaster, it went through twenty six separate editions between 1596 and 1656 and was still used as late as the mid-1700s, with the (ASTOUNDING) 54th edition produced in 1737.

I like to think of Coote as a bit of a controversial teacher, if only because of the mysterious circumstances surrounding his resignation from the King Edward VI Free School in Bury St Edmunds. He started working there as the school master in June 1596, produced and published his book, and then resigned for some reason the next May. Exactly why, scholars still don’t know.

He begins the book with something of a manifesto. Personally, I’m particularly fond of the part where he says that the schoolmaster shall “ease the poorer sort” and help them in “buying many Bookes”:

I Professe to teach thee that art vtterly ignorant, to Reade perfectly, to Write truely, and with judgement to vnderstand the reason of our English-tongue with great expedition, ease and pleasure.

I will teach thee that art vnperfect in eyther of them, to perfect thy skill in few dayes with great ease.

I vndertake to teach all my Schollers, that shall be trained vp for any Grammar Schoole, that they shall neuer erre in writing the true Orthography of any word truely pronounced: which, what ease and benefit it will bring vnto Schoole-masters, they best know: and the same profit doe I offer to all other, both Men, and Women; that now for want hereof, are ashamed to write to their best friends: for which I haue heard many Gentlemen offer much.

I assure all Schoole-masters of the English-tongue, that they shall not onely teach their Schollers with great perfection, but also they shall with more ease and profit, and in shorter time teach a hundred Schollers sooner, than before they could teach forty.

I hope, by this plaine and short kind of teaching, to incourage many to read, that neuer otherwise would haue learned. And so more knowledge will hee brought into this Land, and moe Bookes bought than otherwise would haue beene.

I shall ease the poorer sort, of much charge that they haue beene at, in maintaining their children long at Schoole, and in buying many Bookes.

Strangers that now blame our Tongue of difficulty, and vncertainty, shall by mee plainly see and vnderstand those things which they haue thought hard.

I doe teach thee the first part of Arithmeticke, to know or write any number.

By the practice therunto adjoyned, all learners shall so frame and tune their voyces, as that they shall truely and naturally pronounce any kind of stile, eyther in prose or verse.

By the same practice, Children shall learne in a Catechisme the knowledge of the principles of true Religion, with precepts of vertue, and ciuill behauiour.

I haue made a part of a briefe Chronologie for practice of reading hard Words, wherein also thou shalt bee much helped for the vnderstanding of the Bible, and other Histories: and a Grammer Scholler learne to know when his Authors both Greeke and Latine, liued, and when the principall Histories in them were done.

I haue set downe a Table, contayning and teaching the true writing and vnderstanding of any hard English word, borrowed from the Greeke, Latine, or French, and how to know the one from the other with the interpretation thereof, by a plaine English word: whereby Children shall bee prepared for the vnderstanding of thou∣sands of Latine words before they enter the Grammer Schoole, which also will bring much delight and judgement to others. Therefore if thou vnderstandest not any word in this Booke, not before ex∣pounded, seeke the Table.

If I may bee generally receiued, I shall cause one vniforme manner of Teaching: a thing which as it hath brought much profit vnto the Latine tongue, so would it doe to all other Languages, if the like were practised.

Finally, I haue giuen thee such Examples for faire Writing, whereby in euery Schoole all bad hands may be abandoned, that of thou shouldest buy the like of any other (which thou shalt seldome finde in England,) they alone will cost thee much more money than. I aske thee for my whole Profession.

If thou desirest to bee further satisfied, for the performance of these things; reade the Preface, where thou shalt also see the reason of some things in the first Booke, which thou mightest otherwise dislike.

Classroom Culture Quiz

Every year at the beginning of the semester, I have administered what I call a Classroom Culture Quiz. The quiz is designed to get students to think about what it is that they want out of their classroom experience. It is a way of ensuring that students who might otherwise not speak up or would sit back and let the class wash over them, actually get a chance to help shape their educational experience.

This version of the quiz is twenty questions long – a bit longer than the regular quiz – because it is available online and one can go through it fairly quickly. The questions range from how the student conceives of the role of the professor to whether or not cell phone should be allowed in classrooms.

Because I don’t administer the quiz with a request that students allow me to use their responses in research, I can’t actually use the information that I have gathered over the years in a published article, which is a real pity. I can, however, use this information for private dissemination.

If you are interested in using this form or a variation on it, please let me know. I’d love to chat more about ways of helping students to take some control over their education. Heck, if you have any questions you want to add to the quiz, please get in touch in the comments below!




Feminization of Education – A Historical Perspective

The following was inspired by reading this Guardian article on the number of women in higher education.

The feminization of higher education is following the same trends and patterns that were at play in the feminization of general education fields at the beginning of the twentieth century. What I mean by “feminization” is the dual effect that occurs when women begin to outnumber men in a particular discourse or activity in a patriarchal society such as our own.

First, the activity or discourse becomes less valued by the culture in measurable terms – lower wages, longer hours, more responsibility, increased precarity of employment. Second, the activity or discourse becomes a site upon which masculine identity can be asserted through recognition of difference. For example, take a feminized discipline like nursing; hegemonic masculinity constructs itself in opposition to the characteristics associated with nursing.

Throughout the nineteenth century, education at all levels was largely (if not wholly) a masculine discipline. As universal education legislation became standard across Great Britain, the US, Canada and so forth, more young women were educated because, by law, they had to be. As these young women grew up in the system, they began to move into the position of teacher. By the turn of the twentieth century and the rise of the High School movement in the US and Canada, more women were educators than ever before in history.

By the mid-twentieth century, elementary and high school teaching was largely a feminized occupation. More women than men were enrolling in Teacher’s Colleges and Normal Schools, while at the same time, the job was becoming almost laughably precarious. The radio and TV show Our Miss Brooks, though in no way a documentary of the lived conditions of women in education at the time, is one of my personal favourite representations of education in the period. Constantly impoverished, working with an uncaring and blustering (yet impotent) administration, and cutting corners on assessment whenever she was told to, Connie Brooks’ position is startlingly familiar to any adjunct professor now-a-days.

Teachers unions come under particular fire from social and fiscal conservatives and I think part of the reason for this is that the unions are trying to work against this feminization of the discipline by ensuring that pay structures, work hours, and so forth are at least somewhat regulated. Further, educational theory since the mid-twentieth century has tended to focus on the development of feminized characteristics (e.g. social skills) and feminized social qualities (e.g. “togetherness” over “competition”).

At the same time, by the mid-twentieth century, young women were outstripping young men in terms of high school graduation rates. Indeed, since 1970, graduation rates in the US have stagnated and this is in part due to the fact that young men opt out of the education system.

Young men are being told by their patriarchal culture that to be an adult man is to have access to special privileges and that to be a man one must perform that masculinity. At the same time, they are told to go through an education system that the patriarchal culture tells them is feminized and which itself values feminized characteristics. It isn’t surprising that those young men then see the easiest avenue to perform adult masculinity is to stop their education.

Please note, I’m not suggesting that we import more traditionally masculine forms into education specifically to appeal to young boys, as some schools have done. I’m not suggesting we import, say, competition or gender-based clothing regulations into the system just because it is traditionally masculine and therefore will keep boys in school longer. Doing that would only reify the gender roles that we are trying to undermine as good feminist thinkers.

I do, however, believe that something is going to give, but not for the right reasons. That is, the system that has developed in the West over the course of the twentieth century has it that that young men perform their patriarchal privilege by opting out of education, at the high school level and in higher education. Education, however, by its very nature, is a system of training individuals into social privilege insofar as education encourages and allows those individuals to access higher status, wealth, participation in the political system.

Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think the patriarchy is going anywhere anytime soon. It’s proven itself too resilient over the millennia for that to be believable to me.

Instead, what I think is going to happen is one of two possibilities:

  1. The Know-Nothing form of masculine performance will cease to exert its influence and the education system will be re-masculinized. There are cases throughout history of disciplines being masculinized; most notably, medicine in the Renaissance and Enlightenment moved from the practice of midwives and wise women to a masculine discipline. It seems perfectly possible to me that the education system will be taken over by men again as a way of re-asserting masculine privilege.
  2. If education is, at present, the key to gaining social status, privilege, and participation in the political system, then that will cease to be the case as other qualities will become more important to gaining that status. This too has happened in the past. In Imperial Rome, education ceased to be an avenue for social advancement. It just stopped figuring anywhere on the cursus honorum. Other qualities – whose family you were born into, where you were born, what religion you subscribed to – simply mattered more to your social position and access to power than your knowledge or training. The late Romans, especially the land-owning “nobility,” were suspicious of education and anyone who was too damned crafty for their own good. In that way, they remind me of Donald Trump supporters.

Now, I’d be overjoyed if I thought for an instant that what is happening in higher education and education more generally were a fundamental shift away from patriarchal systems of control, but I simply don’t see that happening. A masculine-figured administration has neutered and rendered impotent a feminine-figured faculty. Patriarchy isn’t being dismantled, it is being reasserted in a different form than the one that existed at the end of the nineteenth-century. After all, Victorian laws on universal education were, in part, a way of dismantling a pernicious and toxic form of patriarchal control. What we are seeing now is just another head of the hydra of patriarchy.

Do I have any solutions for this? No. Not a clue.

I do however think that both of the two scenarios that I just laid out are so horrific in their consequences that we have to find an alternative.

Of course – I could be completely wrong. Let me know in the comments.

Four Words to Avoid When Writing English Essays

OK, this post is for all the undergrads out there who will be writing English essays for me (or frankly for anyone else) in the future. There are a few words that you really need to eliminate from your writing in order to make your prose more concise, analytically rigorous, and meaningful. Of course, I can only speak to my own experience as a professor here, but damn, these words are meaningless. Don’t use them.

  1. Effective
  2. Accurate
  3. Important
  4. Successful
Alrighty then, let’s go through these one at a time, shall we?

1. “Effective”

This word crops up a lot in papers on poetry and Shakespeare and I am always a bit confused as to what it means. It usually crops up in two ways. First, as a kind of disingenuous intensifier; second, as a way of signalling basic comprehension of the text.

The problem is that “effective” actually can be a term of analysis when you start applying it to basic rhetorical analysis. That is, it makes perfect sense to say that Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar was not effective. Why not? Well, it didn’t convince the Roman people, but Mark Antony’s speech really did rile them up. 

And just look at how pretty he is… that is part of his effectiveness… no, seriously!

Thus, you can use “effective” as a way of opening up a discussion about the rhetorical distinctions between those two speeches. One posits the audience in this way, the other posits the audience in this other way; one uses metaphor in this way, the other uses metaphor in that way. This form of analysis is always looking to the audience, investigating the relationship with the audience and what “the audience” means.

Too often, however, “effective” in papers ends up presuming that “audience” is identical with “me, the student writing this paper.” To such a student, a text therefore becomes “effective” if that student comprehends the text.  

“Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover is an effective 
statement about the beauty of nature.”

Well, yes… sort of… but that, at best, is only showing that the student has reached the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but is trying to sound like something more advanced is going on.  

One version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

In university, it is great that you “get” the text. But so what? Now that you “get” it, what are you going to do with it? The point of literary study after all isn’t just to memorize texts and their basic meanings. We do things with words. That’s the fun part.

2. “Accurate”

This is another of those cases where the word sounds like it is signalling some form of analysis, but really all it is doing is saying “look, I understood the words on the page!”  Again, that’s great, but there’s more to university literary study than simply “getting” a text.

When I’ve seen this in the past, it has come up in regards to the terms of representation. That is, all texts are representations, and representations have a fraught relationship with reality. Indeed, there might not even be an accessible reality underneath it all, if the post-modern theorists like Jean Baudrillard are correct. Dealing with representations, where those representations are not derivatives of a prior, authentic, “real” original is a hard concept to wrap your mind around, I know.

It`s so much easier to think in terms of `truth`and `lies.`

So it is not surprising that people want to say things like “Shakespeare`s representation of gender in the early modern period is accurate.” That said, what the hell does that even mean? Does it mean that Shakespeare in this text provided a completely descriptive model of what “gender” meant in the early modern period? Does it mean that he provided a partially descriptive model of one aspect of gender, which may or may not be complicated or refuted by other aspects of gender in the early modern period? Hell, for that matter, what do you mean by “gender”? Gender presentation? Policing? Gender bending? Gender as power? Gender as… well, you get the idea.

It’s almost like trying to say there’s a reality that is X. There is a representation that is Y. Now write a compare and contrast between X and Y. Wow, they overlap! I guess Y is accurate.

The problem is that there is no reality that you have access to as a student. There is ONLY representation. Every book you read is a representation (of a historical moment, of a poem, of an individual), even the history books aren’t the real events themselves, but representations of history. So at best, what you end up saying is there is this representation that is Y. There are a bunch of other representations, A, B, C, that all say the same thing. Well, Y is accurate.

That’s not accuracy. That’s intersubjective agreement. If you want accuracy, go to Engineering.

3. “Important”

A personal pet peeve of mine.

Never say something is important. It wastes words and says nothing. 

You may as well just write this.

One (very old-school) way to think about an English essay is that you are being asked to show how a text works. It’s like being told to explain how a car works. Now, you can talk all about the car and all the details of it, but if you say “the brake is important,” then that’s just wonderful, but what the hell does this “brake” thing do? How does it work? Is there one component or many? What does it add or take away from the overall purpose of this “car” of which you speak?

Also, which part is it?

Texts that we study in university are usually as, if not more, complex than your average VW Golf. If all you tell me about Isabella Whitney’s use of geography in her poetry is that it is “important,” then you’ve done no real analysis. On the other hand, if you tell me that it is important and here’s why, then why did you need to say it was important?

That is, if you explain what a “brake” does in a car, it is self-evident why it would be important for the functioning of the vehicle. You don’t have to then add “isn’t that important?!” Similarly, if you show how geography informs Isabella Whitney’s poetry, then you don’t have to add how important it is. It is self-evident from the explanation. 

Seriously, read Isabella Whitney’s Last Will and Testament. She’s awesome.

Finally, there is another reason why you should avoid saying “important.” I said above that in university literary analysis we do things with words. We tear them apart; we put them back together in new ways; we burrow into the different ways that they are related to each other; we fill old words with new meanings; we trace the changes in meanings of individual words… we do a lot. None of it is “important” – but then nothing is. That isn’t to say you should dive into the depths of existential despair, but that without being tied to the idea that what we do is “important,” we can play. We can seek Jouissance.

4. “Successful”

This is closely related to all the other ones insofar as the use is predicated on a misunderstanding of texts-as-representations. That is, what does it mean for a text to be “successful”? 

When I get this, usually students aren’t talking about sales or box office, so that metric is out the window. Usually students seem to talk about a text being successful if the text communicates some larger thematic concern: “Macbeth successfully depicts the struggle between good and evil.” 

Is this what it is to depict the struggle unsuccessfully?

Of course, all this actually means is that the student has identified a certain thematic element within the text and wants to communicate that. Whether or not those thematic elements are, in fact, in the text is another matter entirely.

Another way to think about why this word doesn’t work is to ask, why is one text successful and another not? I’ve seen this word attributed most often to Hamlet, to be honest. Undergrads seem fairly certain that Hamlet is a successful text. OK, fair enough. But why is Hamlet successful and, say, The Room is not?

Really, how different is this from “O that this too too solid flesh would melt…”?

When you start exploring that question, you have to start looking into how texts produce meanings and shape them, as well as how those meanings are determined and shaped by certain cultural moments, generic proscriptions, and audience expectations. Suddenly, the interest is not about how one works well and the other doesn’t – a matter of taste – but how both texts work in terms of what they do and how they do it.

Ultimately, as a professor of English, I don’t care about your taste. Like Shakespeare, don’t like Shakespeare; either way works for me. Tell me that you think he’s successful, sure, fine… I don’t care. What I do care about is that you are seeing how the text is both shaping you and shaped by you. I want you to move beyond knee-jerk aesthetic judgments and into analysis of the text that isn’t a matter of “success” or “failure.”

After all, as far as I’m concerned, all texts fail to communicate. In fact, that’s the most interesting part of them. But that’s probably for another time.