Why Shakespeare's Stories Still Resonate

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 8

Why do Shakespeare's works, written so long ago, still speak to us today? Just as actors and directors strive to work out this question on the stage, the academy continues to find new meaning in Shakespeare, too. We asked scholars Gail Kern Paster and Jeremy Lopez about why we continue to learn new things from Shakespeare's plays more than four hundred years after they were first performed. 

Gail Kern Paster is director emerita of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Jeremy Lopez is an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto and former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Folger. They are interviewed by Rebecca Sheir. 

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © August 13, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Speak to Me as to Thy Thinkings," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for this podcast series from Amy Arden.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called "Speak to Me as to Thy Thinkings."

It looks at the relevance of Shakespeare to modern life—how this work, written so long ago, can still speak to us about problems we face today. Actors and directors always strive, of course, to make sure their Shakespeare performances have something to say to the audience, but it's probably in the academy, at colleges and universities, that the search for new meaning in Shakespeare is most thoroughly realized. That's what we're going to look at in this podcast.

Here to explore the idea of learning something new from Shakespeare's plays are Gail Kern Paster, my predecessor as director of the Folger, and Jeremy Lopez, associate professor of English at the University of Toronto, who has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Folger. They're interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: When we look at Shakespeare, we might think to ourselves, "Okay, these plays were written 400 years ago. Scholars have been poring over them for all that time, so there's nothing left we can possibly learn from them." Gail, you obviously don't agree.

GAIL KERN PASTER: We change. I mean, we are not the same culture. Our preoccupations are different, our interests are different, and it's from those interests and preoccupations that we ask questions of the plays and expect them to come back to us with interesting answers.

SHEIR: But, I guess, we tend to assume people have always asked questions about Shakespeare's plays. But, Jeremy, is that true?

JEREMY LOPEZ: I mean, I guess people have probably always asked questions about Shakespeare. Like, what was that play about? [LAUGH] But to refer to something that Gail said, asking questions with the idea that we're going to learn something from Shakespeare, I think, does originate in the 18th century and sort of develops through the 19th century and really takes off in the 20th century as a specifically academic enterprise.

SHEIR: What was that turning point in the 18th century?

LOPEZ: Well, I think the turning point was the editing of Shakespeare's text, and the competition between editors for establishing what the best text was, and what the best way of explaining the nature of that text was to readers. And they really do set the parameters for literary criticism that we've moved on from, in some ways, but in other ways, we really haven't. I mean, we still edit Shakespeare's text with an eye to establishing their legitimacy and the nature of the interpretations they can enable in ways that are quite analogous, I think, to the 18th century.

SHEIR: So, going from the 18th and 19th centuries, how did we get to where we are now, where we often use Shakespeare's plays to bring a certain kind of mirror to ourselves? We try to see a reflection in the plays that will bounce back to us and who we are.

PASTER: Well, I think that starts really early. I mean, Coleridge famously says, "I think I have a smack of Hamlet in myself."

SHEIR: Right, right. And Gail, something you've said is, Shakespeare's plays "familiarize us with ourselves, but they also defamiliarize us with ourselves." I'm fascinated by that. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

PASTER: Well, I think when we look back at plays that are 400 years old, it isn't surprising that the language is different, the characters in some ways react differently than we would, maybe, expect them to. But at the same time, the outsized emotions of Shakespeare's characters are ones that we recognize, and I think that's because the core emotions really just leap across the centuries. So, that's the familiarity.

But at the same time, there are many, many moments in the plays where gender relationships, or relationships from master to servant, seem the sorts of behaviors that we find peculiar. The great interest in the nature of what it is to be a king, which is, you know, a huge preoccupation for Shakespeare, and a huge preoccupation for Shakespeare's moment, is not one that is directly related to something we care about.

LOPEZ: I was thinking, as well, about something like Taming of the Shrew, where you have representation of relationship between men and women, which is in many ways unfamiliar to us. And you'll often see productions, modern productions of Taming of the Shrew, that really deliberately play up the unpleasant elements of that relationship, that go out of their way to emphasize the violence, and I think that's one example of how the text can be used to sort of defamiliarize ourselves from ourselves. We sort of witness something that we are familiar with, a contest with a member of the opposite sex, and then, see it kind of magnified, and put through the filter of another culture that makes it alien and disturbing, and that, perhaps, makes us think about the conventions of our own interactions with one another.

SHEIR: So as we talk, we keep talking about the questions, quote, "we" ask about Shakespeare. Who is the "we" you have in mind, when you talk about that?

LOPEZ: The word "we," as we're using it here, is a convention of scholarly discourse, and it can have kind of elitist, plummy overtones, you know, "the things that we most appreciate about Shakespeare," and there's a particular kind of split between the "we" of actors and the "we" of scholars.

PASTER: In the first person plural, there is a kind of proprietary claim. And there's a famous moment in Al Pacino's film, Looking for Richard, where Pacino and his sidekick, who is a fellow actor, and they are looking for Richard III, and they go to scholars, and there are [LAUGH] these wonderful cameo appearances of scholars, looking like deer caught in the headlights. And they come away, kind of, Pacino and his friend come away a little bit discouraged, or put off, probably is a better word, and the sidekick says, "What do expletive-deleted PhDs know about Shakespeare, anyway?"


LOPEZ: If I may play devil's advocate. [LAUGH] It always seems to me, slightly... There is more of a difference between the general public and Al Pacino, than there is between the general public and me. And, in many ways, Al Pacino has more cultural authority with the text Richard III than I do. More people have seen Richard III in Al Pacino's populist view than in my ostensibly elitist, ivory tower classroom. So, you know, I think it's worth kind of taking apart that opposition a little bit. And I also think education is supposed to be something that we as a culture value, and the fact that ideas about Shakespeare come from the university and infiltrate the general public doesn't seem to me a problem. It seems to be the work of the university.

SHEIR: Today, on the part of directors and artistic directors, there seems to be a search for relevance, sort of asking that question, "What can a Shakespeare play tell us about life today?" So, for the past few decades, it seems we can really see the staging of Shakespeare's plays kind of getting sucked into the current debates over big issues, whether it's feminism in the '60s and '70s, or war during Vietnam and then, of course, again in the past 15 years. Would you say that that's accurate?

PASTER: Well, I would, but I think it's been going on for a long time. I really do. For example, the character of Caliban in The Tempest, is a really good, he's a very good barometer of sort of cultural politics, racial politics, colonial politics. That's been really going on for, I would say, 20, 25 years.

LOPEZ: Certainly, back to the mid to late '60s, you can see a lot of these concept-driven productions that are quite specifically meant as interventions by means of a certain discourse, a political discourse or social discourse. Somewhat, I guess, it's always been the case that people have sought to make Shakespeare relevant to the historical moment in which he's being performed, but the overt political coding of that is more a convention of the mid to late 1960s. And I think, once you get an expansion of public education, with that comes kind of expansion of the Shakespeare performance industry, and with that comes a kind of need to distinguish your production from all the other productions.

SHEIR: So, Jeremy, you just mentioned education, and both of you have done your share of teaching, when it comes to Shakespeare, through the years. Do you find that students are asking new questions about Shakespeare?

LOPEZ: I mean, if you are talking about whether students ask questions that are interested in the relevance of Shakespeare to our contemporary moment, or whether that's kind of a convention of the literary criticism that we pawn off on them and make them interested in, I would say that students, for the most part, do not begin by asking questions about Shakespeare's text that show a specific interest in relating the text to contemporary affairs. They sort of know that you're going to probably take them in the direction of contemporary relevance, because they know that you want to get them interested in the work.

But I do actually think that students begin with a kind of historical interest: How was Shakespeare's time different from ours? "How were women treated back then?" is a common question that students ask. "Would audiences of Shakespeare's time have been offended by Taming of the Shrew, as I, a modern student, am offended by The Taming of the Shrew?" That is a very common question. I think students, before they get interested in the contemporary relevance of a text, are interested in establishing sort of a historical anchor, where they can measure their own reaction to the text.

PASTER: But there are some times when a play seems really strongly connected to something that's going on the news. So, for example, teaching Measure for Measure, which is about sexual harassment. It's about a man in power trying to sexually coerce a reluctant young virgin. And here I am in, you know, during the Clinton years, teaching Measure for Measure, and talking about sexual harassment, and it just seemed really, very eerily, to the point.

And you actually can use those moments, pedagogically, to get something interesting going on, and that is one of the most wonderful things about teaching, and I think it's one of the most wonderful things about teaching these plays. I mean, if I were going to really be asked, in a very tough and unrelenting way, you know, what makes these plays so wonderful, I guess I could say, because they do lend themselves to these amazing moments, where you have these kinds of surprising moments of discovery or dialogue, or whatever it is, and it can happen.

SHEIR: It seems like this is a great opportunity to talk about the utter breadth of Shakespearean scholarship. I find it astounding how many subgenres there are out there. For example, I just interviewed an author of a book, she's a professor here in Washington, DC, on what she calls Shakesqueer. She's applying queer theory to Shakespeare. Why do you think there are so many of these subgenres, new ones popping up every day, it seems?

LOPEZ: I guess, the most obvious reason, and the one that is least satisfying, is that the institution of the university needs something to do to keep it going. [LAUGH] You know, I think that that's, for the most part, great, and I think it's true of all literary disciplines. I mean, Shakespeare, it's more intense with Shakespeare, but obviously, with Jane Austen, or Chaucer, or Dickens, and Virginia Woolf, I mean, there are these authors have had a similar kind of expansion of discursive categories over the last, you know, 40, 50 years. I do think that Shakespeare was writing in a theatrical culture, and himself wrote in a particular way, that depended upon, and made use of, and found value in a certain kind of open-endedness, and that open-endedness, I think, is what produces so much of the meaning that we give to these plays.

PASTER: I think that's a great adjective, and I would say that one of the things that has happened in the last 25 years, let us say, is that new kinds of histories are being created, and so the history of humans' relationship with the environment, for example, it's perhaps not a new history, but it's certainly being looked at in a new way. And so, scholars, being scholars, are going to ask historical questions, questions of historical origin and historical trajectory, and so now there is a kind of ecocritical movement in Shakespeare. Some of it seems pretty silly to me, but some of it's kind of interesting, but it is absolutely a new twist. There's clearly the history of feminism, as it has intersected with Shakespeare, there's the history of the body, there's clearly what you were talking about with Shakesqueer, and that is, questions of gender orientation. I mean, Shakespeare's open-endedness is an invitation to that kind of inquiry.

SHEIR: So we've talked about how Shakespeare is open ended, and therefore inviting all of this new scholarship, new ways of looking at him, so clearly we have an endless fascination with Shakespeare, it seems.

PASTER: You know, let's not forget, I mean, this guy wrote a lot of plays. I mean, you know, there is an endless fascination with a lot of literary figures, but there's a lot of material.

LOPEZ: And there is an idea that's been around for some time, that Shakespeare was the best, that there is one figure who was able to rise above all literary figures who followed him, and people are quite fascinated by that. You know, there is something fascinating about trying to figure out what, over and above all kinds of cynical things, like marketing, and like the deliberate exploitation of one's personal preoccupations through an historical figure... I mean, if Shakespeare were just those things, he wouldn't have lasted, there are plenty of flash in the pan, kind of cheap, cynical marketing gimmicks. So Shakespeare does have something that seems to rise above other things of the same kind, and I think people are quite fascinated with figuring out what that is.

PASTER: The phenomenon of greatness, which we can critique and try to demystify some way or other, and I think scholars do that quite a bit, but I think that at the end of the day, it's still there: greatness.

SHEIR: Well, Jeremy Lopez, Gail Kern Paster, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.


WITMORE: Gail Kern Paster is director emerita of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Jeremy Lopez is an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto and former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Folger. They were interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

"Speak to Me as to Thy Thinkings" was recorded and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Esther Ferington. We had help gathering material for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series from Amy Arden.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.