Seminars

  • Founded
    1982
  • Seminar Number
    581

This seminar explores issues of interest to the current Shakespeare scholarship. Principal topics include the relation of play-script to performance, the implications of recent changes in textual study, the relevance of texts to the social and political world in which they were produced, and the impact of contemporary theory on Shakespeare criticism. A Bernard Beckerman Memorial Lecture is presented annually in honor of the seminar’s founder.


Co-Chairs
Professor Caralyn Bialo
caralyn.bialo@mville.edu

Professor Lauren Robertson
lr2859@columbia.edu

Rapporteur
Shanelle Kim
sek2212@columbia.edu


Seminar #581 will continue to meet virtually through the 2021-2022 academic year. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change.

Meeting Schedule

09/10/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
'Compounds Strange': Old and New Ways of Assessing the Relations between Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Plays
Steven Monte, College of Staten Island, CUNY
Abstract

Abstract

This talk, an outgrowth of my book on the organization and ambitions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, draws specific conclusions about when the sonnets were written and why their compositional period was an extended one. Such an inquiry requires thematic and stylistic comparisons to the plays; more broadly, it provides the opportunity for interpreting relations between the sonnets and the plays, and for reflecting on the differences between “humanistic” and “scientific” methods of comparison.

One of my aims is to offer perspective on an aspect of Shakespeare studies that tends to be “left to experts”—the statistical basis on which texts are ascribed to authors and to dates. It is commonplace now to recognize that some of the canonical works of Shakespeare were written by “Shakespeare and company,” but how the conclusions have been drawn remains largely a specialized discussion. I take up these matters, partly because I believe that they can be explained more simply than they have been, but mostly because assessing their significance depends on a better understanding of them. Among other things, I aim to provide an audience-friendly account of the math behind attribution studies and the dating of Shakespeare’s plays and poems.





10/08/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
The Writing Master’s “Rough Hewings”: Early Modern Poetic Labor and the Pedagogy of Revision
Adhaar Desai, Bard College
Abstract

Abstract

This talk studies the career and writings of John Davies of Hereford, a self-consciously lesser-known contemporary of Shakespeare and Jonson who also happened to be a celebrated teacher of formal handwriting. At its heart, the talk juxtaposes Davies’s published guide to “fair writing,” which treats its subject as a perfectible craft, with his poetry, which consistently reflects on the provisional and uncertain nature of poetic work. Because he was both a professional writing teacher and an aspiring poet, Davies’s writings vividly show how affiliating poesy with innate genius or blotless lines obscures the expenditures of time, ink, effort, and attention necessary for poetic composition. As he came to recognize that such expenditures were largely possible only for privileged classes, he also wrote about how his own financial need and professional obligations sometimes forced him to sacrifice art to expediency.

I argue that by foregrounding the importance of idleness to literary endeavor, Davies’s writings challenge us to reflect upon our own pedagogy’s relationship to writerly labor. How might the written work assigned in literature classrooms encourage the genuine practice of revision? How can our classes acknowledge—and attempt to dismantle—structural barriers to inclusion and educational equity? With the help of foundational and recent scholarship from Rhetoric and Composition Studies, especially regarding strategies for Labor-Based Assessment, my talk closes with proposals for how the practice of writing pedagogy in our literature classes might better reflect the practices that produced the texts on our syllabuses.





01/28/2022 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Epicures in Kissing: Asexuality, Psychoanalysis, and Venus and Adonis
Steven Swarbrick, Baruch College, CUNY
Abstract

Abstract

Freud’s readings of Shakespeare are notorious for their universalizing claims about human sexuality. What is less commonly noticed, and what my essay seeks to foreground, is the asexuality that underwrites psychoanalytic theories of sex. From Leo Bersani’s claim, “There is a big truth about sex: most people don’t like it,” to Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s coauthored book, Sex, or the Unbearable, psychoanalysis affirms Julie Sondra Decker’s account of sexuality in The Invisible Orientation, where Decker describes sex as “at best tolerable, at worst uncomfortable.” Following Decker, the field of asexuality studies urges scholars to question the monopoly that sex has on our existing tools of research and to recognize sexuality as a compulsory system shaping bodies, pleasures, and cultural hermeneutics. Focusing on Venus and Adonis, I show that Shakespeare’s poem is replete with asexual encounters, including objectless kisses and an unromantic partner who, at the end of the poem, reproduces himself asexually as a plant. In other words, it is not Adonis alone who spurns sexual romance; Venus’ insatiable kissing is a textbook example of Freud’s point about the paradoxical asexuality of sex: when it comes to the pleasures of kissing, Freud says, “‘It’s a pity I can’t kiss myself.’” This essay invites us to read asexuality not as a particular orientation. Instead, it asks how asexuality, psychoanalysis, and Shakespeare disorient our readings of sex.





02/11/2022 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
The Thing Itself: Performance and the Celebrity Text
Louise Geddes, Adelphi University
Abstract

Abstract

Since the turn of the twentieth-century, the presumed invisibility of craft that defines dramatic theatre erases our capacity to usefully theorize the repeated use of a popular script in performance. This chapter suggests that the unrealistic expectation placed on dramatic theatre to represent events, thoughts, and feelings as if they were happening for the first time ignores the latent celebrity power of the oft-repeated play. This paper uses the Public Theatre's 2017 production of Hamlet to suggest that a Shakespeare play is a vibrant celebrity in its own right. Scripted performance is not a single event, but an entelechial process of materialization that continues to grow and evolve as its own affective archive. Acknowledging the archontic nature of the celebrity play recognizes how Hamlet's capacity to exist as its own archive affords it an affective, iterative power that navigates the production, marketing, and consumption of classical theatre without ever losing shape as “the play.”





03/11/2022 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Dreaming Worlds: Living with “Things Unknown” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Jane Hwang Degenhardt, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Abstract

Abstract

This talk proceeds from the premise that Shakespeare’s plays provide a radical alternative to accounts of the singularity and knowability of the world that are usually associated with Renaissance humanism, with the Cartesian cogito, or with the empiricism of scientific method. More particularly, I consider Shakespeare’s plays as explorations of pluralistic cosmologies that often elude the capacities of human reason, perception, and experience. Focusing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I demonstrate how Shakespeare sets forth a theory of poet invention that embraces the poet’s creative potential to “borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be,” as Sidney put it in his Defense, so as to give presence to worlds that exists beyond what can be known. In Shakespeare’s play, the transformative effects of otherworldly phenomena are attributed to the “fierce vexation of a dream”—dismissed by Theseus as the “untrue” stuff of fiction and the “fantasies” of madmen, lovers, and poets. By exploring early modern theories of dreaming, I consider how dreams were understood to function as thresholds to other worlds that expand the horizon of the possible and provide access to a form of knowledge freed from the confines of embodied consciousness. Ultimately, I demonstrate how Shakespeare’s identification of poetic imagination with dreaming theorizes theatrical invention as a consciousness-altering portal that provides access to the unknown and the impossible. In stripping away the illusory limitations of body, mind, and world, Shakespeare’s play demonstrates how the veil that divides us from other worlds and cosmologies is much thinner than we presume. At the same time, A Midsummer Night’s Dream urges us to confront questions about consent and coercion that pertain to movements between worlds. I conclude by examining some connections between early modern theatrical invention and present-day speculative fiction that draw our attention to the ethics of crossing between worlds.





04/15/2022 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Coalface: Staging Air Pollution in Ben Jonson’s London
Bernadette Myers, Columbia University
Abstract

Abstract

This talk explores the history of air pollution in early modern London and one strategy that emerged to represent this phenomenon on stage: what I call “coalface performance,” or the impersonation of the laborers responsible for transporting and selling coal. As my terminology suggests, coalface had much in common with early blackface performance, or the impersonation of black-skinned Africans. Most notably, both performance traditions often involved blackening an actor’s face, body or clothing with coal dust or soot. When Aaron, the blackfaced Moor of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, proclaims that “coal-black is better than another hue,” he calls attention to this shared technology of theatrical representation. In this talk, I situate Aaron’s famous line alongside understudied examples of coalface performance from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to clarify the relationship between coal, class, and the history of racialization. I then turn to Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist to show how Jonson reworks the coalface performance tradition by destabilizing the link between coal and laboring bodies through its use of smoky special effects. In doing so, I argue, Jonson’s play reframes the smoke produced by coal as an urban ecological problem in which all Londoners, not just lower-class laborers, are implicated. I conclude by considering how attention to this nascent urban ecological consciousness might impact how we read Aaron’s blackface and the racial paradigms it seeks to uphold.





04/29/2022 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
The Shame of Conjugal Sex and the Reproduction of Whiteness in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Melissa Sanchez, University of Pennsylvania
Abstract

Abstract

This chapter traces the effects of Pauline and Augustinian soteriology on Protestant views of marriage. The Protestant Reformation is conventionally understood as elevating conjugal love above the lifelong celibacy privileged by the Catholic Church. But this redemptive vision of companionate marriage overlooks a key argument of leading reformers like Luther and Calvin: both deemed marriage superior to celibacy not because marriage sanctifies shameful creaturely desires, but because it publicly acknowledges them. This view of marriage as humbling confession of impurity runs counter to the ideals of contemporary white evangelical culture as well—and has been inscribed as law by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which both the majority and the dissent agreed that that marriage is a unique expression of love and dignity. By contrast, Protestant anxiety that nuptial sex shares the excess and indignity of fornication structures the sexual and racial fantasies of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. When Shakespeare’s procreation sonnets cast poetry as a reproductive technology free of the contamination of lust, they valorize not only same-sex desire but also the preservation of specifically “fair”—white—life. We thus find in these poems an early instance of the struggle to reconcile the Protestant conviction of the shame of conjugal sex with a secular valorization of the reproduction of whiteness.





Notes: Bernard and Gloria Beckerman Memorial Lecture
05/13/2022 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Sex, Violence, Silence and Othello
David Sterling Brown, Binghamton University, SUNY; ACLS/Mellon Scholars and Society Fellow in residence with The Racial Imaginary Institute
Abstract

Abstract

This talk reflects on the psychological, emotional and physical consequences of different types of violence in and beyond Othello—that is to say, in contemporary times. I argue that the white identity formation process itself, and more importantly and harmfully, allegiance to its ideals, inherently impedes racial equality; the white identity formation process itself works to reify white superiority in overt and covert ways. This is especially evident as I read the figure of Iago in relationship to other characters in the play, especially the play’s male figures who become targets of his sexual violence. Furthermore, I use Othello to reflect on how early modern drama can amplify the “white voice,” a concept Jennifer Stoever and I examine in Shakespeare Studies (vol. 50, Autumn 2022); and within this talk I accentuate the personal-critical-experiential to consider the Black (male) Shakespearean voice and how it, too, can be subject to white violence.