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Shakespeare in Context: Player, Author, Imposter

This month, UConn’s Benton Museum welcomes the exhibition “First Folio! The Book that Gave us Shakespeare” as part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s project to send one copy of the book to each of the 50 states.

On September 9, students and faculty gathered to discuss the man and his historical moment, with presentations by three Ph.D. candidates in the Department of English. The event titled “Shakespeare: Player, Author, Imposter,” painted a picture of who Shakespeare really was, and why we are still talking about and reading his work 400 years after his death. 

Performance as Literature

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English Ph.D. candidate Reme Bohlin. (Photo by Sydney Lauro)

In Réme Bohlin’s presentation, “Before the Folio: Shakespeare’s Plays as Performance,” she said that today, most people encounter Shakespeare as literature, in a classroom, and not on stage.

Further, many people miss out on how different of an experience it was seeing a play in Shakespeare’s time. For instance, the increase of indoor theaters during this time period attracted a more genteel audience, and shifted the content of Shakespeare’s plays to suit more sophisticated tastes. Since gentlemen were allowed to sit on the stage itself, Shakespeare, unfortunately, had to change his writing over time to limit things like the sword-fighting scenes.

Bohlin reminded the audience that commercial theaters only employed male actors, so actors often cross-dressed and had to take multiple speaking parts, which impacted how Shakespeare wrote and cast his plays over time. For instance, certain actors were more suited to comedies than tragedies.

Keeping Shakespeare’s historical moment in mind, Bohlin concluded, will help readers of Shakespeare as literature understand the many factors that shaped Shakespeare’s vast body of work, which were originally dynamic performances.

The Technology That Gave us Shakespeare

“Authorship and the Early Modern Book Trade,” George Moore’s presentation, explored the role of print culture, after the advent of the printing press, and changing ideas about authorship in the early modern period.

Thanks the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, the book trade emerged as a thriving enterprise in Elizabethan England.

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English Ph.D. candidate George Moore. (Photo by Sydney Lauro)

Within Shakespeare’s lifetime, printed books being reproduced more quickly – and often without the author’s consent – became commonplace. The rapid expansion of print culture led to many authors feeling anxiety about their work going out into the world, being altered, and removed from their parentage and influence.

This anxiety ran so deep that authors often expressed this apprehension in their work through metaphors of “monstrosity,” said Moore. Famously, in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the villainous monster Error vomits books and papers, signifying Spenser’s distaste for the unruly spread of written works.

The idea that some texts might become monsters stemmed from the notion that one of a kind works of art have what Moore called “an aura,” which is the sense that the art bears the trace of it’s creator. Once the printing press technology was used to replicate texts, that sense of the author in a work disappeared, to the chagrin of the authors themselves. Even today, Moore said, books feature au author biography and headshot, to help readers feel more connected to the work’s author.

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, the Bard playfully participated in this conversation about authorship and how it was changing. Shakespeare’s character Autolycus recites ballads that satirically use the “monster” metaphor.

But without this technological advancement of the printing press, it’s possible we might not have access to Shakespeare’s work at all. No originals of any of his works have survived; save for the reproduced folios currently traveling the U.S., without which Shakespeare’s plays and poems may have been lost to history.

The Authorship Question

Melissa Rohrer opened her talk with the exclamation: “For those of us who study William Shakespeare, there is one thing we are guaranteed to be asked at least once: is it true that Shakespeare didn’t really write those plays?”

In her presentation, “Shakespeare, Authorship, and Modern Conspiracy Theory,” Rohrer examined why some scholars, called anti-Stratfordians, are all convinced Shakespeare did not write the plays we attribute to him, even though Shakespearian scholars almost universally discredit this belief.

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English Ph.D. candidate Melissa Rohrer. (Photo by Sydney Lauro)

She explained that anti-Stratfordians believe Shakespeare could not have written may of his works because his education level was not high enough. How could a man with no knowledge of court and no extensive education write such complex, pith, and intellectual plays, they ask?

These people guess Shakespeare must have really been Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Bacon, or Sir Walter Raleigh. Rohrer discredits this notion because Shakespeare not only wrote collaboratively with other writers – a major difference between today’s definition of authorship and that of this time – but he had the necessary knowledge about the details of the theater that an elite member of court would not.

Anti-Stratfordians also discredit Shakespeare because his biographical information is absent in his plays, said Rohrer, whereas the gentleman Edward De Vere’s, another candidate for Shakespeare’s identity, lived a life that paralleled the character Hamlet’s almost too well. Rohrer pointed out that this theory relies on the misinformed belief that authors in Shakespeare’s time wrote biographically, like modern authors typically do.

Finally, many anti-Stratfordians say that Shakespeare couldn’t have had the extensive knowledge of cities and countries outside of England. They even speculate that the playwright Christopher Marlowe faked his own death, fled the country, and wrote from abroad. Shakespearean scholars, however, say that any playwright writing from abroad could never have achieved Shakespeare’s success without an intimate, day-by-day knowledge of the Elizabethan theater, actors, and audience reactions.

William Shakespeare makes the most sense as the author, concluded Rohrer – particularly when people accept that playhouses were first and foremost businesses. Anti-Stratfordians refuse to believe that a money-obsessed social climber like Shakespeare could write such amazing art, but this relies heavily on a modern, romanticized view of authorship, said Rohrer.

“To deny Shakespeare the playwright is to deny an important aspect of our reality,” Rohrer concluded. “If we believe that only an aristocrat or the highly educated could write such works of artistic greatness, than we are putting limits on human potential.”

By: Sydney Lauro ’17 (CLAS)


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