06 February 2012

2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival: Session 3

Welcome back for the afternoon session of the 2012 MLitt/MFA Thesis Festival. This session will feature six presenters and runs from 1:30-4:30pm.

Dori Koogler: "Upon a True Contract: Handfasting and Clandestine Marriage in Shakespeare's Plays"

Koogler opens with a discussion of the conditions of marriage in the early modern period, focusing on the physical components of a "spousal contract": vows, joining of hands, kiss, and the exchange of rings. Made in the present tense, these components constituted a marriage; in the future tense, they constituted a betrothal, which was still considered legally binding. Koogler offers evidence not only from historical realities but also from clues within Shakespeare's plays. In early modern England, while marriage might have legal entanglements, and while paperwork could be useful in a dispute over validity, all that the Church required was mutual consent; this changed with the Marriage Act in 1754. The Church did require, however, the presence of witnesses; without witnesses, a marriage was considered "clandestine and irregular". Due to common cultural awareness of these irregular marriages, Koogler notes that it became fertile ground for exploration on the early modern stage. Shakespeare treats in some manner with these irregular marriages in a third of his plays. Adkins and Malicki present several instances of espousal contracts and handfastings in Shakespeare's plays.

Koogler gives a deeper examination to the idea of betrothal in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In 2.2, Julia and Proteus make vows, exchange rings, join hands, and "seal the bargain in a holy kiss". Koogler argues that, because the "cultural experiences of betrothal have changed so much in the past 400 years", modern audiences may not as easily grasp the depth of the situation. The transgression, she argues, would have resonated more strongly with an early modern audience, who saw Proteus not only breaking up with his girlfriend, but breaking a legal bond and a scared vow. Koogler further speculates on the suspected betrothal between Florizel and Perdita in The Winter's Tale. Though this play does not include lines detailing the ceremony, as The Two Gentlemen of Verona does, Koogler argues (and Malicki and Adkins demonstrate) that it may be possible for Florizel and Perdita to enact the entire ceremony during a 6-line monologue of Camillo's. Koogler finishes by stating that using modern marriage signifiers, particularly with regard to the exchange of rings, modern productions can amplify the importance of these betrothals to better approach the weight they would have had for an early modern audience.

Stephanie Tschetter: "In the Closet: Unstaged Staged Directions during the Interregnum"

Tschetter opens by surveying the audience's awareness of closet drama. She positions her exploration during the Interregnum, while the theatres were closed, and notes that closet dramas were initially intended for readers to imagine, rather than for actors to perform in a theatre. Tschetter notes that both early critical and modern conceptions seem to consider closet dramas as undesirable, without a reason to take the dramatic form that they do. Tschetter challenges the idea that closet dramas ignore theatrical realities and conventions of the stage; rather, because of their inherent form, the stage directions "are clearly conceived for the conditions of the early modern theatre." She focuses on those plays written during the Interregnum, which suggest that the plays may indeed have been meant to be played, but were legally prevented from public presentation. Tschetter's actors (Monica Cross, Jessi Malicki, Michael Wagoner, Jamie Weaver, and Liz Lodato) read stage directions from these plays, demonstrating their potential connections to the actual stage.

Tschetter offers an example from William Chamberlain's Love's Victory. She notes the difference between the embedded stage direction an actor could rely on and the explicit directions needed to make a visual picture clear for a reader's imagination. Tschetter argues that writers expected these readers to have familiarity with the picture of the stage, as those audience members would likely, before the 1642 closing of the theatres, have seen plays on the stages they now had to imagine.

Further directions inform the reader not only of early modern staging conditions but of the tricks of the trade, such as the concealment of blood within sponges tied to the middle finger and concealed in the palm. In this way, Tschetter points out that closet dramas deserve attention for what they have to teach us about early modern staging effects.

James Byers: "Concealing the Mere Irish: An Analysis of English Performance of Irish Ethnicity on the Early Modern Stage"

Byers opens with a presentation from Ben Jonson's Irish Masque (with help from actors Jonathan Haas, AJ Sclafani, and Jarom Brown); Byers notes the long, complex, and often contradictorily-characterized nature of the millennium-long conflict between the English and Irish. He gives a short history of the conflict, dating back to Henry II's initialization of the conquest of the island. The original colonists in the Pale became isolated from the English and eventually came to occupy a liminal state between the native Gaelic Irish and the English on the other side of the Irish Channel. By the 1500s, Henry VIII and other monarchs had sent more colonists to reinforce English presence in and control of the island. After a period of relative peace in the late 16th- and early 17th-century, rebellions crested again in the 1630s; Cromwell moved in during the Interregnum to re-establish control. The idea of the "barbarous Irishmen" served as a source of apprehension and fear for the English, with wild myths springing up around their supposed possession of strange patterns.

Byers moves to examining characteristics of Irish characters on the English stage. First, the accent, which is not necessarily the be-all and the end-all of an Irish character, but which are a signifier and which provide a mean of "tracking the evolution" of such characters. He also examines the various character types, including rebels, military captains, criminals, bawds, servants, and apprentices. The latter of these "represent the subservience of the Irish in England." With the help of his actors, Byers presents examples of all of the various types for the audience. This exploration carries weight, Byers notes, not only for better understanding of the early modern plays, but, with consideration for the ongoing nature of relations between the two nations, by way of "exploring the nature of reactions" to ethnic representations and to our own concepts of stereotypes.

Angelina LaBarre: "Hip Hop Pedagogy and Shakespeare: Performative Verse, Then and Now"

LaBarre and her actors (Elizabeth Rentfro, AJ Sclafani, Jarom Brown, and Melissa Tolner) slouch their way onto stage in hoodies and sunglasses. LaBarre begins by acknowledging the racial and cultural history of hip-hop, then stating that those origins have no direct relevance for the scope of her thesis. Rather, she intends to focus on the linguistic similarities between hip hop and Shakespeare and how those similarities can provide an advantage for modern teachers. She argues that early modern theatre occupied the same cultural space as hip hop does today, as a rhythmic verbal performance tradition. She relates the squaring-off between the Caesarian faction and the Liberators in 5.1 of Julius Caesar to "The Dozens", an insult contest of personal power, valuing quick responses and verbal acuity.

LaBarre delineates some of the similarities between rhythm and vocabulary. Rentfro demonstrates "flowcabulary" -- a method which translates Shakespeare's language into modern vernacular. LaBarre notes that this teachers students nothing but the plot. Tolner then presents a quote from a modern hiphopper, and LaBarre points out that almost no one in the audience understood what she was saying. This, she states, provides a teachable moment about the use of slang and colloquialism in verse. She describes an exercise which compares today's slang to Shakespeare's, asking students what people four hundred years from now might make of the word "gangsta". LaBarre's actors then demonstrate the iambic pentameter rhythm of modern hiphop verse, and LaBarre points out the presence of irregularities and caesuras in the lines. These breaks in the rhythm serve both the plot and the emotional mood of the verse. Her next example relates to alexandrines, with natural mid-line breaks, as well as demonstrating several rhetoric devices employed by the rapper.

LaBarre ends her presentation by expressing her hopes that these connections between Shakespeare's language and modern hip hop will provide fertile ground for educators seeking new ways to make Shakespeare relevant and interesting to their students. The lyrical inventiveness and rhetorical dexterity of both forms provide a strong basis for comparison. She is currently developing a curriculum based around these concepts for a teacher in Richmond, VA.

Jonathan Haas: "Virginity and the Problem Plays: An Investigation"

Haas's presentation examines the moral, social, and spiritual ambiguity of virginity's importance in Shakespeare's "problem plays". He begins by examining the idea of the pre-contract and the idea of whether or not a formal betrothal allowed for sexual congress. Using David Cressy as his source, Haas notes the double standard: that many considered varying degrees of sexual liberties acceptable, despite potential legal and religious consequences.

Haas moves to an examination of Measure for Measure and the ambiguity of Claudio's and Juliet's exact nuptial state. He presents various opinions, both from libertines and the supposedly virtuous characters, about the acceptability of post-contract pre-nuptial sexual contract. Even Isabella, who professes to hate the sin of lust, expresses approval of the activity and her hope for the child that will come of the union. Haas posits this as representative of the tension between cultural and legal/religious expectations in early modern society. Haas also notes the differences between Catholic and Protestant opinions on virginity. After the Reformation, the veneration of virginity faded, and many patriarchal views condemned the chosen permanent virginity of a nun as "a dangerous and disruptive thing", a way out of the strictures and expected roles for women. Measure for Measure explores both sides of the argument, demonstrating both characters who view virginity as a noble and appropriate choice and as an inferior, subversive, or dangerous choice. In this way, the problem play engages the cultural conflict over "the messy standards of virginity".

Maria Hart: "Munday Seeking More: Religion, Politics, and Biography on the Early Modern Stage"

Hart's presentation examines how Sir Thomas More contains reference to a political agenda by its primary author, Anthony Munday. Hart believes that, in this selection of More as a topic, Munday revealed a sympathy for English Catholics, in relation to the martyrology of Thomas Becket and Thomas More during the early modern period. Hart gives a short history of More's political history and his conflict during the English Reformation. She continues through the shifting religious allegiance of England as a state during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, following the narrative of English recusants and secret Catholics in particular. This tradition included a print culture which propagated stories of Thomas More "as martyr and saint" -- one of several famous for their refusal to renounce Catholicism. These traditions linked More to the earlier martyr Becket, assassinated under the reign (and ambiguous instructions) of Henry II for his refusal to submit to the king more than to the Church. The Protestant view, by contrast, considered the Catholics as heretics, and those Protestants that they burned the martyrs.

Hart follows this up with Munday's personal history, who on the surface may appear a "flip-flopping opportunist", as well as a government informant on recusants, but who Hart believes reveals himself in his plays as having stronger convictions. Her actors (Liz Lodato, Jonathan Haas, Rachel Ratkowski, Brian Maxwell, AJ Sclafani) present More's execution scene, which Hart notes as portraying More with definite sympathy. The rest of Munday's plays, she explains, likewise treat with issues of the Catholic/Protestant divide in England. At the least, she sees in Thomas More "a reverence and sympathy for the ex-Chancellor," suggesting that Munday may have felt some guilt in himself for his role as an informant, and sought to exonerate that guilt dramatically.

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We're off for a dinner (or, perhaps, tea) break now -- back at 5:30 for the final session of the festival.

For the rest of the Festival, see these posts:
Session 1
Session 2
Session 4

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