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.

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Some Advice Please?

I was hoping to ask for some informal advice and open up a bit of discussion on a topic that I’m sure a lot of us are thinking about in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent ban on migrants and the beginnings of the closure of American borders to Muslims, POC, and other groups.

Many of us are scholars who are not American and a number of upcoming conferences (like the SAA, the RSA, Kalamazoo) will be held in American cities. Given the bans and the increasingly intolerant (and intolerable) positions of the American government, I don’t personally feel comfortable travelling to the United States at this time. I know that I cannot be the only one.

These changes to border policy have already taken effect and will inevitably change the way that conferences and the academy work. For anyone who tries to enter the United States from the precariat, which represents the majority of the academy, they do so without institutional backing. If that scholar is a POC, Muslim, etc., then they open themselves up to unprecedented scrutiny, possible detention, and deportation for simply trying to go to a conference and participate in the professional discourse of which we are all a part.

So my question is… do I cancel my plans to attend the SAA at Atlanta? It is one of my favorite conferences of the year. Every year it is a highlight for me – a breath of fresh air at the end of what is usually a long year of teaching – but can I justify going to the US under the present circumstances? If I can justify going to the US now, then at what point can I no longer justify going? The words of Martin Neimöller have never echoed quite so deeply as they do now.

Honestly, I don’t know the answer and I really hope that you will help me figure this out, because I know others are in the same boat. Please share this widely. I would like to hear from as many scholars as we can on this.

EN 190F Presentation Schedule

Time/Date

Presenter

Responder

February 28, 1:00

Jessica Dong

Hillary Aiken

February 28, 1:15

Nathaniel Carr

Lizzy Laurie

February 28, 1:30

Lindsay Santoro

Daniel Knapp

February 28, 1:45

Megan Nagy

Erika Judar

February 28, 2:00

Rachel Radice

Nathaniel Carr

March 1, 1:00

Hillary Aiken

Lindsay Santoro

March 1, 1:15

Lizzy Laurie

Megan Nagy

March 1, 1:30

Daniel Knapp

Rachel Radice

March 1, 1:45

Erika Judar

Madison McCarthy

March 1, 2:00

Madison McCarthy

Jessica Dong

 

Time/Date

Presenter

Responder

March 7, 1:00

Elise Odegard

Natasha Daigle

March 7, 1:15

Elaine Booi

Aysia Kobayashi

March 7, 1:30

Brooke Romano

Elise Odegard

March 7, 1:45

Melissa Bensky

Elaine Booi

March 9, 1:00

Kathryn Falvo

Brooke Romano

March 9, 1:15

Maria Abramov

Melissa Bensky

March 9, 1:30

Natasha Daigle

Kathryn Falvo

March 9, 1:45

Aysia Kobayashi

Maria Abramov

 

Time/Date

Presenter

Responder

March 14, 1:00

Dillon Krajaefski

Katherine Mery

March 14, 1:15

Katherine Mery

Cameron Roberts

March 14, 1:30

Cameron Roberts

Andrew Dixon

March 14, 1:45

Andrew Dixon

Emily Doersam

March 14, 2:00

Emily Doersam

Amy Ng

March 16, 1:00

Amy Ng

Ravinder Sandhu

March 16, 1:15

Ravinder Sandhu

Rachel Howard

March 16, 1:30

Rachel Howard

Kaitlyn Richardson

March 16, 1:45

Kaitlyn Richardson

Dillon Krajaefski

Sources for Bottom and The Mechanicals

I had a former student ask me a question, looking for sources from the early modern period for Bottom and the Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I thought I would post my answer because… well, why not?

In terms of direct sources, there aren’t a lot. That is, there is no primary document that says that Shakespeare was making fun of this particular person who was in this particular troupe at this particular time. That said, there are a lot of more intriguingly obscure sources of the sort I could talk about for hours. I’m going to break them down into just two strains of thought, to keep it simple

The Mystery Plays

The first place little Shakespeare would have seen theatre of any sort was probably not at a theatre (obviously, because there were none in Stratford), but in the streets. Not in the sense of the bands of roving players, either. Rather, the tradition of Mystery Plays and (to a lesser extent) Robin Hood plays were probably the first place little Shakespeare got a taste for the theatre.

medieval_minstrel_at_the_york_mystery_plays_by_createthemooduk-d4jafct

Mystery plays were first performed in the late 1300s and were pretty popular until the late 1500s, so they were on their way out of style in Shakespeare’s England, but everyone remembered what they were and what they were like. They took as their topic the whole of the story of the Bible from Creation to the Apocalypse. Indeed, some of the more famous characters of Mystery plays lived on in reference in early modern drama, such as Herod. (Hamlet, in his advice to the actors, says to not bellow too much “it out Herod’s Herod.”)

Mystery Cycles were a processional form of drama where the playing space would be moved throughout a city, often ending up in dozens of different spots within the same city. There would be dozens of different playing spaces that would move, in procession, through the city, all taken together, to tell the story of human existence. And all of this would happen on one day. They were performed for everyone (so this part isn’t much like MNDream) rather than for the court.

Here’s where Shakespeare starts getting his inspiration though. The performers of the Mystery Cycles were the guilds within a town. The guilds were like medieval trade unions; I’ve got a video on these things here. There was a Carpenter’s Guild, a Mercer’s Guild, a Shoemaker’s Guild, a Grocer’s Guild… you name the profession, it probably had (and may still have) a guild associated with it. There were, absolutely, weavers’ guilds, joiners would have been in a guild, etc. etc.  In fact, the name “mystery” in “Mystery Cycle” comes not from any shadowy or spiritual nature of the plays themselves but from the “misterium” or “occupation” of the guilds. In this sense, the traditional name of this genre is a bit misleading today.

In other words, Bottom is a satirical representation of a much older form of performance that was much loved but was dying out in the time of Shakespeare, which was dominated by amateur actors. Part of the ridiculousness of the Mechanicals in the Dream is that they think that they are good enough to perform before royalty. The theatre industry over the course of the 1570s had become professionalized as the Queen’s Master of Revels hired more professional and competent performers to entertain Her Majesty. The amateurishness of a Mystery Play, put on by a bunch of barely literate weavers and bellows-menders and joiners was just not going to cut the mustard.

Kenilworth Castle

The other major influence in the creation of the play in general and the character of Bottom in particular is the Entertainment at Kenilworth Castle in 1575. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was probably the only Englishman who had half a chance at marrying Elizabeth I. They had grown up together under adverse conditions and their families had been closely aligned for decades. In 1575, he hosted Elizabeth at Kenilworth and proposed marriage. She turned him down, but the spectacular celebrations at Kenilworth were SO GODDAM SPECTACULAR that the entire county of Warwickshire came out to see them.

Shakespeare would have been a child at this point, but his father would have been the “mayor” of Stratford and so he, along with his father, in all likelihood attended the festivities. Even if he didn’t attend, he surely heard of the wonders that were on offer at the entertainment. The whole of the landscape nearby was transformed into a pleasure garden. A magnificent fireworks display was put on. A masque was supposed to be performed, which the Kenilworth guidebook describes as having a “story hinged on a debate about whether the chaste nymph, Zabeta, should wed, and concluded with a speech urging the queen to marry.” Though the masque was never performed, a variation upon it was. Of course, why was the masque cancelled? Bad weather. This should sound familiar. When Oberon and Titania meet, Titania talks at length about how their discord was causing bad weather all over the world.

Most importantly for us, there was a play that “featuring Triton riding an 18 foot long mermaid and moving islands carrying the Lady of the Lake and her nymphs.” The play, like many of the entertainments (morris dancing, a country dance party, sports competitions, and other diversions) were actually carried out by locals who had been paid by the Earl of Leicester to be there. Though we know a play called “Hock’s Tuesday” was performed by professional actors brought in from Coventry, the play with Triton was not performed by professionals. The play is particularly interesting, if it was performed by local actors if only because it is actually referenced in the Dream when Oberon is telling Puck where to find the flower that contains the love juice.

OBERON

Thou rememberest
Since once I sat upon a promontory,
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea-maid’s music.

PUCK

I remember.

OBERON

That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.

Elizabeth is the “imperial votaress” who passed on, untouched by Cupid’s love shaft. The whole thing was an epic fail in terms of actually getting Elizabeth to marry Leicester, but it must have made a huge impression on Shakespeare. The people who performed that play with Triton and the Lady of the Lake were weavers and simple men.

 

So those are two places that Shakespeare was getting his ideas from for the characters of Bottom and the others. I hope that this was useful to you. Let me know if I can answer anything else. I love talking about this stuff!

1568 Roger Ascham died

On this day in 1568, Roger Ascham died. Celebrate by using the Latin tongue in a plain and perfect way.

The Scholemaster

Ascham’s influence on education in the Elizabethan period was monumental, even though he only wrote the one book. He argued that it was probably more productive in the long run to lure pupils into a love of learning than to try to beat them into regurgitating Latin by rote.

I have now wished, twice or thrice, this gentle nature to be in a schoolmaster: and, that I have done so, neither by chance, nor without some reason, I will now declare at large why, in mine opinion, love is fitter than fear, gentleness better than beating, to bring up a child rightly in learning.

[…]  I do gladly agree with all good schoolmasters in these points : to have children brought to good perfectness in learning; to all honesty in manners; to have all faults rightly amended ; to have every vice severely corrected; but for the order and Way that leadeth rightly to these points we somewhat differ. For commonly, many schoolmasters some, as I have seen, more, as I have heard tell be of so crooked a nature, as, when they meet with a hard-witted scholar, they rather break him than bow him, rather mar him than mend him. For when the schoolmaster is angry with some other matter, then will he soonest fall to beat his scholar; and though he himself should be punished for his folly, yet must he beat some scholar for his pleasure, though there be no cause for him to do so, nor yet fault in the scholar to deserve so.

These, you will say, be fond schoolmasters, and few they be that be found to be such. They be fond, indeed, but surely over many such be found everywhere. But this will I say, that even the wisest of your great beaters do as oft punish nature as they do correct faults. Yea, many times the better nature is sorely punished; for, if one, by quickness of wit, take his lesson readily, another, by hardness of wit, taketh it not so speedily, the first is always commended, the other is commonly punished; when a wise schoolmaster should rather discreetly consider the right disposition of both their natures, and not so much way what either of them is able to do now, as what either of them is likely to do hereafter. For this I know, not only by reading of books in my study, but also by experience of life abroad in the world, that those which be commonly the wisest, the best learned, and best men also, when they be old, were never commonly the quickest of wit when they were young. The causes why, amongst other, which be many, that move me thus to think, be these few, which I will reckon. Quick wits commonly be apt to take, unapt to keep; soon hot and desirous of this and that; as cold and soon weary of the same again; more quick to enter speedily than able to pierce far: even like over sharp tools, whose edges be very soon turned. Such wits delight themselves in easy and pleasant studies, and never pass far forward in high and hard sciences. And therefore the quickest wits commonly may prove the best poets, but not the wisest orators: ready of tongue to speak boldly, not deep of judgment, either for good counsel or wise waiting. Also, for manners and life, quick wits commonly be, in desire, mutable, in purposes unconstant, light to promise anything, ready to forget everything, both benefit and injury; and thereby neither fast to friend nor fearful to foe; inquisitive of every trifle; not secret in greatest affairs; bold with any person; busy in every matter; soothing such as be present, nipping any that is absent; of nature also, always, flattering their betters, envying their equals, despising their inferiors; and, by quickness of wit, very quick and ready, to like none so well as themselves.

What is the Text Doing?

Is there a difference between being funny and silly? Both are somewhat a synonym of each other, yet, however put off a completely different vibe. Being funny allows the reader to laugh and be amused, whereas being silly allows an absurd reaction and causes to be seen as foolish–having a lack of common sense. Is this what Shakespeare intended to present through his plays?