A Stirling Conference (I)

I’ve just got back from the biannual meeting of the British Shakespeare Association (BSA) in Stirling, just outside Edinburgh. Hence the pun in my title, which even the Bard would blush at, despite its accuracy as a description of what was an immensely enjoyable few days in the beautiful scenery and agreeable warmth of a soft Scottish summer.

To be fair, the BSA was always going to appeal to me, as their organisation is founded on three pillars that I, too, try to include in my work as much as I can: teaching Shakespeare, researching Shakespeare, and performing Shakespeare. I’ve even applied for a job as their webmaster, although the competition looks to be pretty stiff, as there were many keen postgraduates and early-career researchers at the conference – one thing, which, as the organisers pointed out, bodes well for the future growth of the association.

I could go on for a long time about each of the eleven sessions I attended, but prefer rather to focus on the highlights. There are still many (more than a single post’s worth) of these, and only a very small number of weak papers. Of course, my opinions are extremely subjective: as any reader will soon see, my interest in a paper correlates directly to that research’s utility for my own work, and it will be no surprise therefore that one highlight of the conference was my own panel.

With my confession of egocentrism made, I can now begin with the event’s first plenary session, a lecture given by Margreta de Grazia and entitled ‘Shakesepare’s First Anachronism’. As someone who had just given a paper on Malone’s cataloguing of Shakespeare’s anachronisms, I was immediately interested. De Grazia’s paper taught me a great deal: in many respects, are arguments were similar, but her work was both more wide-ranging (running the length of the eighteenth century, from Rowe to Malone, via Betterton and Garrick) and more focussed (concluding with a very compelling reading of Troilus and Cressida as a play written in a proto-antiquity). I’ll have to try and be more like this when I speak and write.

De Grazia’s trifold argument – that there was no anachronism before chronology, no out-of-period before in-period, and that the characters of Troilus and Cressida grope towards a future philosophy beyond their reach – contained the wonderfully pithy observation that Shakespeare’s anachronisms are, in fact, modernisms. That is to say, they represents Shakespeare’s updating of his material to engage with his audience. This got me thinking, for – while undoubtedly right – this reading institutes a particular paradigm of performance, one where the playwright reaches out to his public.

Yet there is another paradigm for appreciating plays (on stage and page), and that is the absorbtion of the reader or spectator into the world of the play. The reader dives in, rather than the author reaching out. This paradigm of performance is, like the critical paradigm of periodisation, is also extremely sensitive to modernisms/anachronisms, since they wake the reader from Shakespeare’s supposedly superlative dramatic illusion, from the believable, truly natural world that he has created.

Of course, this doesn’t alter the fundamentals of de Grazia’s argument, but rather extends them. Her points about periodisation are paralleled in theories of how imaginative engagement with Shakesepare is understood. ‘Anachronism’ is identifiable either as the product of Shakespeare’s (or others’) imposition of modernisms to connect with an audience, or as that which jolts that audience from a complete theatrical world.

As you might be able to tell from the above, my thoughts still haven’t settled down and become sufficiently clear yet. This will be a running theme in these posts, endings which can – I’m sorry – only leave the reader hanging.

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