To borrow from Romeo & Juliet, Dr. Iris Pearce’s love for the works of William Shakespeare was “as boundless as the sea.” Pearce, a former director of Memphis City Hospitals who attended Rhodes College in the 1940s (when it was still Southwestern at Memphis), expressed her love for the most famous person ever to hail from Stratford-upon-Avon by making a generous gift to the college, accompanied by an open-ended charge to promote Shakespeare-related studies in Memphis. Since 2007, the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment, under the guidance of Dr. Scott Newstok, professor of English Renaissance literature, has funded plays, musical events, film screenings, and more.
Pearce’s gift has enabled Rhodes to host free symposiums, lectures, and workshops by an extraordinary range of visiting scholars and artists. This year Memphis joins the world in commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with concerts, readings, and productions of Hamlet, Henry the Fifth, and The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged). In April, the Pearce Endowment will host the “1616 Symposium,” a two-day multidisciplinary event organized by Newstok, with speakers set to deliver lectures on every aspect of early seventeenth-century life: the development of print, Galileo, Cervantes, Kun opera, early medicine, corporate personhood, the beginning of Biblical scholarship, and the collision between alchemy and chemistry.
Newstok, the editor of collections such as Weyward Macbeth and Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, is Memphis’ most indefatigable publicist for the Bard. He explains how all of these seemingly disconnected ideas relate back to an author regarded as the most accomplished writer in the English language, and one of the most misunderstood.
Is there a specific time when Shakespeare the writer became SHAKESPEARE the icon?
That didn’t come until the eighteenth century. It was partly a product of the first major anniversary. In 1769 David Garrick, an actor, director, and theater promoter, created a centennial Shakespeare jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon to start the Shakespeare tourism industry and to promote his own career as an interpreter and inheritor of the figure of Shakespeare.
Why are his plays (and film adaptations) seemingly more popular than ever?
Shakespeare receives disproportionate weight as a non-contemporary writer. There has been less attention paid to other non-contemporary writers; it seems that may be one of the reasons attention paid to him has increased or amplified. There’s been a long-term trend in education at the secondary level to engage less frequently with verse and non-contemporary writing. That leads to a kind of hyper-valuation or canonization of a solitary figure who comes to stand for all non-contemporary writing. I think Shakespeare is a clear example of this. In the Common Core guidelines for reading, Shakespeare is the only named author.
Because it’s a safe choice?
I think it attests to some anxiety about not wanting to name authors. Here’s one that’s non-contentious, so we can all agree on him. So there is a lot of attention to Shakespeare [because of] less attention paid to everyone else.
Does overemphasizing Shakespeare also make it harder for us to understand him?
A fixation on Shakespeare occludes the way he actually worked. For example, we know the way he worked in the theater was immensely collaborative. He wasn’t working alone. He was not a solitary genius. One of his talents seemed to be working really well with others in collaboration. That literally includes working with peers — other playwrights.
The sense of Shakespeare as a solitary genius is a Romantic notion, very nineteenth century. It’s the notion we see in Shakespeare in Love, where he’s sitting in a tower trying to write and needing love to be inspired, rather than someone who is just really savvy about what he does working with really smart people and getting the best out of them. Yes, this almost sounds like a business-management cliché. But it’s true.
It does, but he really did know how to tap into the unique talents of his actors, right?
He had a deeply collaborative relationship with his company. He’s the rare playwright that’s actually invested in the company, and that’s one of the reasons he was so successful as a playwright. Most playwrights would get a one-time fee and no royalties. That concept didn’t exist, and most playwrights didn’t make very much money as a result. Part of Shakespeare’s business savvy was becoming a partner in the company and getting revenue from every purchased ticket.
He wrote with specific actors in mind. Even their body shapes. If someone was tall, he could make fun of them for being tall, and if someone was really rotund like Richard Burbage, he could write them into certain kinds of roles. If there were a comic actor who tended to improvise more than Shakespeare would like, he might make fun of the actor for improvising more than he would like, as in Hamlet’s famous advice to theatrical players. To fixate on Shakespeare as a solitary player actually distracts us from who he was — someone who was deeply interactive with people.
And the “1616 Symposium” at Rhodes is designed to make people think about the ways Shakespeare was collaborative and connected to his world?
Rather than focusing on Shakespeare, we’re taking the 400th anniversary of his death as a chance to think through what the world was like in 1616. It’s a rare occasion to think laterally about how economics, culture, art, performance, and the role of women work to enrich or thicken our appreciation for that moment in time.
Shakespeare was writing at a time of physical and intellectual exploration...
Yes. We’re bringing in a historian of medicine to discuss the transition between medieval ideas of the way the body worked towards more contemporary notions of the way the body works. Gideon Manning [Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Cal Tech], for example, is especially fascinating. Not only is he a scholar of Renaissance medicine, last year he enrolled in medical school for a year to see what it’s like now and differs from medical training 400 years ago.
William Newman [Indiana University Department of the History and Philosophy of Science] is the world’s foremost expert on alchemy, which looks like “not chemistry.” He works in particular on a later figure, Isaac Newton, who still did secret alchemical studies that were largely unknown for a long time.
You mention Shakespeare’s business savvy. How was business changing in 1616?
One speaker, Henry Turner [Associate Professor English, Rutgers] is a brilliant scholar on the history of the idea of the corporation as a legal category. What does it mean to grant a body of people the legal status of being a person? He’s looking at the very medieval and renaissance origins of treating a body of people as if it were a political body with the same rights that a political body has. The year 1616 is right in the middle of a complicated and powerful political emergence of the idea of the corporation.
So much of this outward expansion and inward exploration is evidenced in Shakespeare’s work. Hamlet might be bound in a nutshell and count himself a “King of Infinite Space.” His work really seems to lend itself to this kind of multidisciplinary approach.
I’m always hesitant to use the word “genius” because it’s often more confusing than it is helpful. But I think, if you want to talk about Shakespeare’s ingenuity, part of that was clearly his ability to absorb so much of his reading, so much of what he saw around him, and so much of what he sensed was topical or timely. He’s very open and amenable to being connected to the history of Bible translation, or to contemporary colonial encounters. Because he’s connected to so much, and has drawn upon so much else, conversely you can use him as a vehicle for linking to all kinds of other intellectual practices and disciplines.
The “1616 Symposium” is free and open to the public, and takes place April 21-22 at Rhodes College’s Blount Auditorium. For further information, go to rhodes.edu/1616.