John Parker / English

Teaching early English drama involves an odd conundrum: you can’t easily tell your students what sort of object, exactly, they’re supposed to be studying.  Does “a play” consist of its performance, its script, or both taken together with varying degrees of emphasis?  If performance alone can fully realize the play, does that hold for every performance at any point in history, no matter how innovative, amateurish or compromised by accident?  Who decides between a good and bad rendition?  Students sometimes say “the audience,” which leads to convoluted debates, since everyone readily admits that any audience will comprise differing, even incompatible viewpoints.   If an individual reading of a written document best realizes the play, which edition should you read?  We do not posses any of Shakespeare’s handwritten scripts, and some of his most famous plays exist in multiple, radically different versions.  The one thing you can be sure of, when you read a modern edition of the play, whatever its merits, is its further difference from any one of the versions that existed in the Renaissance.  Such differences are precisely the point of “editing” a text in the first place.  Does that make the play more authentic than the first printed editions, or less?

Students in Charlottesville are unusually well positioned to get a detailed and vibrant impression of early modern drama’s complex nature.  I propose to take my Shakespeare seminar next spring on two field trips: first, to Staunton for a performance of a play at the Blackfriars Theater, followed by a discussion with the cast.  The Blackfriars is one of very few theaters anywhere in the country to produce season after season exclusively of Renaissance English (often Shakespearean) drama.  My hope is that the actors could give students a sense of how much more goes into a play than what they read on the page.

The second field trip would be designed to give them a sense of how many pages lie behind any given page they might read.  To that end we would travel to the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC, the world’s leading collection of early modern playtexts.  I’d plan to meet with the director, David Schalkwyk, and perhaps another scholar who works on editions of Shakespeare, so that they could show us the first editions of central plays — for example, the three early versions of Hamlet — and walk us through some of the editorial problems each poses.

I would expect these two field trips, taken together, to enrich the seminar far beyond anything I myself can offer in the classroom.