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 David Hershinow
david.hershinow@gmail.com

Rapporteur
Bernadette Myers
bm2690@columbia.edu


All seminars will meet over Zoom for the 2020-2021 academic year. Meeting links provided upon RSVP. Meeting dates and times are subject to change. 

Meeting Schedule

09/11/2020 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Counterfactual Richard III
Marissa Nicosia, Pennsylvania State University, Abington
Abstract

Abstract

Counterfactual narratives offer a messy counterpoint to orderly histories. Chronicle plays are grounded in known history, but in this talk about William Shakespeare’s Richard III I argue that counterfactual futures and pretender characters allow playwrights to also envision what might have been. Although Henry VI foretells the Tudor succession with an ironclad sense of destiny, Shakespeare’s Richard III imagines, briefly, what a triumphant Yorkist rule might be. At the beginning of the play, Richard is a part of the Yorkist line of succession – a potential claimant to the throne – who proceeds to jump his place in line. While Richard III was crowned and anointed with the sacred balm like any other king, I show that Shakespeare’s play treats Richard – and the House of York – as counterfactual narratives to the Tudor Myth. Richard’s kingship is rendered as a false, counterfeit rule and the Yorkist line as an aberration, an alternative timeline, in contrast to the Tudor’s inevitable rise. Richard may hold the throne, but his illegitimate usurpation leads to his erasure. Although Richard III is ultimately conservative and reestablishes the status quo of monarchical succession, its dramatic impact resides in entertaining alternative lines of succession that briefly or potentially might have structured the nation’s future.





10/09/2020 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Mud, Blood, and the Naturalization of Carp in All’s Well That Ends Well
Rob Wakeman, Mount Saint Mary College
Abstract

Abstract

At the end of All’s Well That Ends Well, when a befouled Parolles enters the stage “muddied in Fortune’s mood and smell,” Lavache supposes he “has fallen into the unclean fishpond of [Fortune’s] displeasure” (5.2.4-19). In this paper, I show that Parolles’ fishiness is linked to the play’s naturalization of the social order. No fish is more routinely marked as a stranger to English waters than carp. Since their introduction in the fifteenth century, fishing manuals and cookery books described the common carp as a fish “not long known in England” but one that “is now naturalized.” Although carp were praised for their fecundity, they were scorned for their muddy flavor. How, then, did they establish themselves, as Izaak Walton puts it, as the “Queen of Rivers, a stately, good, and very subtle fish”? Through a comparison of the play’s attention to mud, blood, and carp with seventeenth-century recipes, I argue that the story of carp in England parallels Parolles’ promise that his “instruction shall serve to naturalize” Helena (1.1.194). The purgative methods that exorcised mud from the bloodstream demonstrate the paradoxical corruption of the body through its purification.





11/13/2020 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Shakespeare's Disgraceful Hands
Seth Williams, Barnard College, Columbia University
Abstract

Abstract

This talk argues that women in Love's Labour's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and The Winter's Tale exercise forms of devotional authority that are explicitly choreographic in nature. It does so by exploring the rhetorical slippage between grace in its corporeal and spiritual senses in sixteenth-century dance manuals, for example in Fabritio Caroso's theorization of the "touch of grace" that accompanies "taking hands" to dance, and in the credit he gives to the divine motions of God, the "eternal Mover." But while such manuals blurred distinctions between spirit and matter, they also have material histories of their own. By studying widespread printing errors that threw into confusion a key moment—taking hands to dance—this talk suggests that how hands first touched often determined whether a choreography proceeded with grace or in disgrace. It then exa





12/11/2020 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Shakespearean Futures: Casting the Bodies of Tomorrow on Shakespeare's Stages Today
Amy Cook, Stony Brook University, SUNY
Abstract

Abstract

An actor walks on stage to play Lear, or Beatrice or Henry and we immediately begin making judgments about the story to come based on the actor selected. We may wonder to what extent the actor’s race or gender or body type will be relevant (and in what way), but we see it. In productions of Shakespeare today, directors are using the bodies of the actors to tell us how we are to understand this old story now. Directors can use casting to reflect or mirror the world we live in or the director can cast a body counter to our expectations in such a way that we are invited to challenge our categories for ruler, lover, villain. I will examine the casting and staging of key contemporary productions of Shakespeare to argue that through these counter castings we can see the future we are grappling with, a future that’s paradoxically hyper-attentive to the body while destabilizing the categories of race/ethnicity, gender, and even the idea of the self. These productions of Shakespeare are using casting to tell the future.





02/12/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Antony and Cleopatra and the Triumph of English Theater
John Kuhn, Binghamton University, SUNY
Abstract

Abstract

This talk argues that the triumphal parade, a staple of English drama from Lodge’s The Wounds of Civil War to Dryden’s The Indian Queen, was a key device which English playwrights used to characterize pagan empires and their ethics. I place Antony and Cleopatra (1606) in relationship to both the rich theatrical tradition of stage triumphs and extra-theatrical representations and appropriations of triumph in Stuart England, arguing that Shakespeare’s tragedy and a contemporary play, Marston’s The Wonder of Women, or the Tragedy of Sophonisba, represent a decisive shift in the use of these set-pieces onstage. Shakespeare and Marston, I argue, respond to the appropriation of the Roman triumph in civic and royal contexts and in doing so, provide a pointed critique of England’s own imperial aspirations. I conclude by showing how the material circumstances of the theater itself, particularly the sourcing of its properties, would sit increasingly uneasily next to the anti-imperial critiques offered by the institution’s narrative products as the seventeenth century wore on.





03/12/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
The Nature of Whiteness in Henry V’s Theater of the Earth
Marjorie Rubright, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Abstract

Abstract

This talk attends to the terrestrial forces at play in the opening and conclusion of Shakespeare’s Henry V as the chalky cliffs of Dover and coast of Calais are figuratively transformed from abutting battlefronts into forcibly conjoined human bodies. The talk argues for the racializing effects of an early modern mode of thinking that I characterize as “cliff-consciousness.” Shared among dramatists, lexicographers, and antiquarians of the period, this counter-intuitive philological mode of thinking with and about the earth’s precipices resists equating edges with endings, cliffs with borders, or promontories with limits. Instead, it sets the minds of early moderns to work on cultural, terrestrial, and racial conjunctions that underpin notions of embodied whiteness. The talk explores how, two hundred years before the founding of the Geological Society in England, “cliff-consciousness” lent a terra-somatic logic to the construction of northern European whiteness.





04/09/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Much Ado About the Social History of Truth
Debapriya Sarkar, University of Connecticut, Avery Point
Abstract

Abstract

What does early modern literature have to say about truth? When Philip Sidney declares that the poet creates “forms such as never were in nature,” he suggests poesy makes something out of nothing. Poiesis, or literary making, thus names the activity of creating an alternate reality—and thereby of constructing a new truth. This talk situates this Sidnean notion of truth in relation to the emergent idea in seventeenth-century England that scientific truth was a construct, dependent on the social credit of witnesses testifying to observed facts.

I turn to William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing to trace homologies between the social histories of literary and scientific truth. In particular, I excavate how the truth-value of Hero’s chastity in Shakespeare’s play rests upon the words of credible figures who testify to her (non-existent) act of infidelity, and relate this to how, several decades later, the scientific production of truth in the early Royal Society occurred through the testimony of individuals of probity. But Shakespeare’s staging of a sociable model of truth-making does not merely anticipate subsequent developments in the history of science. Rather, by withholding from audiences the event upon which aristocratic witnesses base their judgments—and whose truth they construct—Much Ado exposes the fundamental instability of proof. Ultimately, the play’s mechanics of truth-making reveal why there cannot be a social history of scientific truth divorced from literary history.





05/14/2021 Online Meeting
7:00 PM
Isabella’s Feminist Ethics in Measure for Measure
Cristina León Alfar, Hunter College, CUNY
Abstract

Abstract

In this essay I would like to think about Isabella, in William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, as part of what I am calling a feminist ethics on the early modern English stage. Specifically, I am interested in ethical stands taken by female characters whose acts and points of view are in some sense repulsive but also compelling in light of certain moral questions or problems posed by their plays. Such stands retain an ethical force that is in conflict with other problematic or even brutal acts committed by the same characters that pose problems of interpretation or reception. Isabella is not held up to idealized forms of moral purity, then, in this essay. Rather, the moral rigidity that that slips into vengefulness that many scholars find troubling about her is held in tension with a larger ethical point she makes in response to a culture of female sexualization and objectification in Vienna. The central problem of her play—the ethical crisis created by men’s sense of entitlement to women bodies—requires a response that disturbs, that turns the status quo on its head. When viewed in light of the many other exploitations of women in the play, whether they are prostitutes or those to whom men are affianced, then a picture emerges in which Isabella acts against a systemic practice of female objectification at work in Vienna, not only when she refuses to consent to sexual blackmail but also when she refuses a response to the Duke’s proposal. In Measure for Measure Isabella emerges as parrhesiast, in Michel Foucault’s terms, speaking from a dramatic and political ethical center which, I argue, is feminist.





Notes: Bernard Beckerman Memorial Lecture