BSECS vs BARS: Clash of the Conference Titans! Part I

In theory the big academic conferences have the whole wide expanse of the summer break to stake out dates in, but in practice they all tend to cluster in July, possibly because in June everyone’s catching upon on their paperwork and in August they want to go on their holidays. Sod’s law being what it is, sometimes they clash. This year, two of the biggest beasts in my field have locked horns – The British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (BSECS) postgrad and early career conference in Belfast, and the British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS) general conference in Cardiff. I had a paper accepted at BSECS, but the BARS early career conference in Grasmere was the first place I’d ever given a proper paper, and I’d made a lot of friends I wanted to catch up with. Not to mention the fact it was in my home town and the organisers needed people to help out. This led to five solid days where I lived on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night, barely ate anything but conference food and ran mostly on caffeine and alcohol. Academics tend to party hard.

For my flight to Belfast I’d consigned myself to the vagaries of the public transport system, which meant a 2am start in order to catch the 7am flight to Bristol. The weather was so low, grey and drizzly there was nothing to be seen after the plane leapt into the air, and scarcely anything before. I dozed gently in my seat, to wake as the plane began to descend towards the sunnier shores of Northern Ireland. I caught the bus into Belfast town centre, and walked to Queens University.

Interior of the postgraduate building

I come from a city that likes to think it can do Victorian Gothic, hosting as it does the medieval fantasy of Cardiff Castle – with the fairytale Castle Coch not far up the Taff trail – and a variety of chapels and private dwellings now largely converted into hotels and restaurants. Still, I have to admit that the postgraduate building at Queens, with its gargoyles and waterspouts and gorgeously renovated interior, complete with setpiece spiral staircase, took my breath away. I found the conference in the back, and had just time for a revitalising cup of tea and a few introduction, before I went to the catch the first panel, on the saucy subject of Sex and Illegitimacy.

Marie Michlova’s opening paper ‘Sex in Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Scotland’ was a whistlestop tour through the sex lives of some of my favourite literary characters: James ‘Alas, too too plain was the dread approach of Signor Gonorrhoea’ Boswell, Robert ‘Fornicator’ Burns and James Hogg, the original naked rambler. I was also pleased to see an honorary mention go to J.G. Lockhart, famous for using an ellipsis of no less than thirty asterisks to suggest unlawful congress in his 1822 novel Adam Blair.

The revelation of the panel, however, was Kate Gibson’s ‘Natural Alliances: Connections between illegitimate children and their families’ which yielded the intriguing information that it was the not-terribly-subtle habit of the Pembroke family to give their illegitimate children anagrammatic surnames: hence such oddities as Augustus Reebkomp and Miss Mebkoper. I spent an entertaining five minutes deciding what to name my hypothetical illegitimate child, before settling on the pseudo-Welsh ‘Llyrret.’

After a coffee break I had a second panel on Philosophising Connections. Philosophy not being my strong suit, I recall very little about it beyond Audrey Borowski’s valiant attempt to explain to me the subtleties of Leibnitz’s thought, which held me engaged through sheer force of presentation alone. It was pleasant also to hear from someone as early in her career as Laura Griffin presenting her MA research. As someone who cut his teeth presenting at York University’s internal humanities conference, I know the experience will stand her in good stead.

After a disappointingly greasy lunch, we gathered once again to hear Professor Matthew Grenby talk to us about ‘Applying for External Funding’ who succeeded in imparting information, keeping us amused, and not crushing our spirits – three important features in an info-talk.

The following panel seeming rather heavy on papers about eighteenth-century Romanian dictionaries, I took the opportunity to go explore the city with a few fellow renegades – John-Erik Hansson, Grace Harvey and Jen Wood, whose panel on the works of William Godwin I had regrettably given over for the Sex and Illegitimacy panel. There are some conferences by the end of which I seem to know everyone by their first name – Locating Fantastika, earlier in the month, was like that – and others where you spend all your time hanging out with a small group of friends. John-Erik, Grace and Jen were a fine example of the latter – no sooner did they hear that I was planning on spending the following month deep in Godwin’s works as I prepared to write about his early novel Imogen then I was declared an honorary Godwinist with Corresponding Society privileges. We had a pleasant wander into town via an independent bookshop and an upmarket cafe before returning to the next panel, Challenges to Enlightenment Science. Stephen Server got us off to an excellent start with an entertaining paper about gout and therapeutic networking amongst its victims, but the next two papers were fascinating subjects let down by poor presentation. A paper on Catholicism, exorcism and the supernatural in Ireland, with a gripping case study at its heart, was delivered in a mumbled monotone, and during another interesting paper about native medical practices versus Spanish colonial attitudes in South America the speaker seemed to be groping for every word. it was left to Dr Caroline Warman to restore energy to proceedings with her vibrant keynote, in which she defiantly upheld the importance of Denis Diderot’s neglected late work, Element of physiology, and restored it to its proper place in the canon.

The conference dinner at Molly’s Yard proved one of the best I’d ever been treated to, and after rounding off the evening with a few pints of Guinness at a convenient tavern (when in Ireland) the Godwinists and I retired to our accommodation.

Interior of the Armagh Public Library

Conscious, perhaps, of one Guinness too many, I breakfasted frugally on a bowl of muesli, but stepped off the bus to Armagh with a song upon my lips. The location chosen for the second day of the conference was even more impressive than the day before. We were speaking in the reading room of the majestic Armagh Public Library, founded in the eighteenth century but extended, the archivist admitted, in the nineteenth. The old boards were perfumed with that fabulous old book smell I recollected well from many hours spent among the special collections and archives. An original edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with the author’s own corrections, was proudly on display amongst the manuscripts, incunabula and rare editions, while the library’s eccentric habit of storing books by size and not by subject meant that running an eye along the shelves was an entertaining treasure hunt.

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Me presenting my paper

I opened the first panel with my paper ‘The Forger, the Lexicographer and the Poet’s Granddaughter: Samuel Johnson and John Milton in 1750’ and I was followed by a pair of enthusiastic and knowledgeable papers – Sophie Liu’s on paper wars and crises of succession, and Cameron Quinn’s on the French authors Voltaire and Jean Meslier. Sadly in our enthusiasm we had all over-ran, and were limited to one question each, which was a disappointment as well as something of a relief.

I’m aware once more of perhaps overtaxing the patience of my audience, so let me just say that the stand-outs among the remaining papers included Samantha Lin’s intriguing talk about the creation of her romance game, Regency Love, for iOS, though her – perhaps overfaithful – recreation of eighteenth-century female accomplishments and strictures of courtship raised a few feminist hackles. Peter Collinge’s work reconstructing the network of places, clients and connections created by Jane Williamson at the Derbyshire servant’s registry office also proved fascinating in its complexity.

I’d had all too little time to see the sights of Belfast, Armagh, and their surroundings – what little I’d seen had tantalised rather than satisfied, but no matter – I was on the plane home that evening, and in despite of having the most uncomfortable seat on the flight (middle, back, non-reclinable) I was asleep soon after take-off. I got back to Cardiff by 2am and sunk gratefully into my bed – after all, I’d have to be up bright and early next morning for the next conference.

For details of more fascinating academic papers, together with how I completely missed my friend Mikey saving a man from anaphylactic shock, my free trip to Tintern Abbey and how I wound up doing a strip-tease in front of a senior Jane Austen scholar, tune in for Part Two!


Locating Fantastika 2015

10394099_1599607710283171_972099079920980110_nThe trouble with doing a PhD on the influence of a famous poet is that after a while you start seeing him everywhere. Though the scope of my project is confined to eighteenth-century literature, I’ve started spotting traces of John Milton’s Paradise Lost everywhere from Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man to Mrs Beaton’s Cookbook. He was particularly noticeable in the graphic novels I regularly borrow from the library and flip through to help me switch off after a hard day. So when I received a Call for Papers from a science-fiction and fantasy conference in Lancaster called Locating Fantastika, it seemed like a fine excuse to max out my library card with comic books and apply some of the highfalutin’ theories of poetic influence I’d been reading up on to a medium that often slips beneath the critical radar. Also, they seemed to have a good record at turning conference papers into journal articles, and it’s about time I’ve got one of those under my belt.

My paper ‘“I didn’t say it. Milton said it. And he was blind.” Paradise Lost in the comic book tradition’ was accepted, and one warm day in July I began my train journey with a light heart. After all, I had a four hour trip to a conference about science fiction and fantasy literature – dear me, what was I going to read on the train?

In the midst of my paper!
In the midst of my paper!

By the time I arrived in Lancaster I’d finished China Mieville’s The City and The City and was 100 pages into Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and still had time to explore the city before meeting the conference attendees for a canalside evening drink at The White Cross. They were easy to spot – the woman with the aquamarine hair was a giveaway, as were the scattered tattoos of tentacled Lovecraftian and Mievilleian horrors. I circulated and introduced myself, which meant that although my paper was headlining the first session of the following morning, I could look over the heads of my auditors and realise they weren’t all unfamiliar faces! It seemed to go pretty smoothly – I nipped next door for a paper on Fantastic Grasmere by Polly Atkin, a friend from a previous conference, then nipped back in to catch papers by Tim Jarvis and Chris Hussey. Tim incorporated a rather wonderful ‘found notebook’ frame to his paper, which added a splendidly Gothic note to a heavily theoretical paper on the representational praxis of weird fiction. I’d been braced for incoming questions, but Tim and Steve weathered most of the fire, though I got one really interesting one from the panel chair which made me conscious of several new directions in which to extend and develop my research.

I hesitated a little over which panel to go to next, but Stephen Curtis’ ‘Moon Kampf: The Rise of the Lunar Nazi in Speculative Fiction’ proved irresistible – especially since I’d already seen the so-bad-it’s-good Nazisploitation movie Iron Sky at an Astronomy Club Movie Night. Then lunch, wherein I strode out to a rather pleasant graveyard a little beyond the uni, complete with its own weeping angel – then back to Ruth Heholt’s paper ‘“Land of Myth and Magic”: West Barbary and the Hammer House of Cornish Horror’ which was a revel of post-colonial zombies and alarmingly Freudian lizard women, with a plethora of enjoyable clips for illustration.

I missed the next panel while I was running around in circles trying to work out where I’d dropped my wallet, but the day wound up well with Kevin Corstorphine on American haunted house stories, and Nicola Bowring’s fascinating paper on how Gotham developed from a small Nottinghamshire village of fools and madmen to the grim and gothic abode of the Batman.

The conference dinner offered the twin delights of good food and good conversation, and the next morning I arrived to hear two papers on Lewis Carrol – one by Francesca Arnarvas from York University, which I fondly remembered from my MA year, and another by Nina Lyon from my own Cardiff University, both of which upheld the honour of the school!

I panel-hopped in the next session, catching a post-imperial reading of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader courtesy of Aishwarya Subramanian before nipping over to the other panel for Alan Gregory’s paper on Joe Hill’s NOS4R2 and Keith Scott’s paper on Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels. Keith threw a few comments my way since I’d walked in with The Rhesus Chart, the fifth book in the series, beneath my arm, and managed to give me the giggles so badly I had to bite my lip.

The second plenary by Phillipa Semper filled my notebook with other books to read, and then the day wound up with a final panel with Douglas Leatherland, Catherine Spooner and Chris Pak, covering everything from mapping Middle Earth to Vampire Tourists to the terraforming of Mars. I had a few things left to do in town, so skipped the final roundtable, but managed to meet the stragglers in the pub for a pint before my train left. I was back in Cardiff before midnight – denn die Todten reiten schnell!

Locating Fantastika was a fantastic conference – I left brimful of ideas for turning my 4000 word paper into a 6000 word article, proud that my immersion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hadn’t blunted my knowledge of science fiction and fantasy, and inspired to attack the next chapter of my novel-in-progress. I am used to owning up to Poly-Olbion as a guilty distraction from the proper work of my thesis, and it felt so good to talk about it as a work that reflected and reacted to the themes of place and space that ran through the conference. It’s been an energising experience on a lot of levels – personal, creative, scholarly – and I’d like to thank everyone who played a part, not forgetting conference organiser Chuckie Patel, for playing Doctor Frankenstein to our collective Monsters!

A Year in Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

More than anything else Shakespeare wrote, how you interpret A Midsummer Night’s Dream centres around how you play the fairies. Are they the sweet delicate little things of the Victorian myth, posing in gardens for young girls to photograph? Are they proud, noble, natural aristocrats? The stuff of your worst nightmares? Or all of these in turn? Neil Gaiman rather captured the problem in an issue of The Sandman, where Shakespeare’s strolling players perform the play for the King and Queen of Faerie. Peaseblossom, a monster like a walking thorn bush, is outraged at his portrayal. ‘It’s nuffink like me! Nuffink! Issa wossname. Travelogue? Nah, travesty.’

Arthur Rackham, New York, Limited Editions Club, 1939. By kind permission of Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives

For these reasons, I was keen to get hold of an illustrated edition for my blog. Cardiff University Library hold one of the most beautiful examples ever printed, but to my disappointment I’d already covered that edition in my reading of The Comedy of Errors. I was sorely tempted to break my own rule of reading each play in a different edition, but eventually decided to move on – but not without giving you a view of Arthur Rackham’s incomparable Bottom. (No, sorry, that didn’t come out right.)

Fortunately, my friend Mikey is compiling a database of Shakespearean illustration, and let me borrow a hefty mid-Victorian volume of plays illustrated by Kenny Meadows who honed his trade on that stalwart of the era, Punch Magazine. It is quite fun for once to turn to Introductory Remarks that begin, in high Victorian style ‘Variegated, light, and splendid as though woven in the woof of Iris, the wondrous texture of this enchanting dream is yet of stamina to last till doomsday.’ A modern critiFullSizeRender 16c would be laughed out of his job for writing this, but everyone can admire the sentiment. The small print, two column format allow Meadows’s sketches to sit close to the actions they illustrate – sometimes, as with some of the fairy songs, the two seem almost to interact. It’s an organic way of illustration and one he seems much more comfortable with than the more standard dedication of a large illustration to a single page, to judge by the rather stiff and ungainly frontispiece to the play.

Meadows’s talents tend more to the light and delicate – the tiny fairies playing games with snails or encircling the moon. His portrait of Puck as a wicked cherub is unintentionally creepy, and his Bottom isn’t a patch on Rackham’s magnificent specimen. (Not quite right, again!) Yet what I really miss is the feel of the wild wood and the darkness, the maze in which the foolish, lovestruck mortals (and Faerie Queen) are wandering throughout the middle acts. Meadows, I think, gives us too clear a prospect out of Shakespeare’s tangled plotting and characterisation.

FullSizeRender 6Some of the comedies thus far, like Measure for Measure or Much Ado About Nothing, have felt like tragedies only lightly deferred, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream feels like an entirely new genre. Even having read Shakespeare’s early trials of the stage mechanics in the final fairy scenes of The Merry Wives of Windsorthe play seems to have a touch of the uncanny about it, as if sprung from nowhere. I will always remember the shiver that went down my spine the first time I read the play through, in my first year of university, and finished the play just as the chimes of midnight struck out over the sleeping city. For a moment, I was still in fairyland.

A Year in Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice

IMG_0147After struggling through Love’s Labours Lost, it was a relief to put the heavy collected edition back on the shelf and borrow a pocket edition of The Merchant of Venice from the university library. It’s part of a Cambridge Shakespeare series from 1958, and it’s small, squarish, a rather pleasant faded blue colour, and blessedly lightweight. It’s not for every pocket – it would be hard to slip this inflexible hardback into the back pocket of my jeans, for example – but it turns out to slip very nicely into the large square pockets of my favourite denim jacket, where it swiftly found a place among the cycling gloves, notebooks and mint humbugs. As it was quick access, I read several scenes in the queue at the supermarket. The editor apparently has a quixotic fondness for preserving archaic spellings such as ‘piring’ for ‘peering’, ‘moe’ for ‘more’ and ‘roth’ for ‘ruth’, but this difficulty is easily solved by turning to the helpful glossary.

Aside from the edition, however, there’s little about this play that’s lightweight. Antonio, the merchant of Venice himself, begins the play in a state of apparently causeless melancholy. If we assume he is both gay and in love with his straight friend Bassanio, much about the play that was mysterious now becomes readily fathomable. But that’s just my theory.

Bassanio wants money in order to woo the beautiful Portia, and though Antonio’s assets are currently all invested in shipping, he agrees to borrow money on credit to give to Bassanio. However, this was the Renaissance, where Christians were forbidden from practicing the sin of usury (i.e. earning a profit on interest). So Antonio must borrow from Shylock the Jew, towards whose race he has the usual unedifying prejudices. Shylock, who looks on Antonio with equal dislike, agrees to lend him the money on no interest at all, provided he puts up a pound of his own flesh as forfeit upon non-payment – for what use would that be to anyone?

Once he has the money, Bassanio soon succeeds in wooing the beautiful, witty and brilliant Portia. That’s hardly surprising in a Shakespearean comedy. The real drama is when Shylock, incensed by the way Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo has seduced his daughter, demands his pound of flesh of the Doge of Venice after Antonio fails to make repayments.

IMG_0148Like Measure for Measure, it’s a problem play where the ending leaves us with questions still to be answered. The portrayal of anti-Semitism is unflinching – Shylock concludes the play forcibly converted to Christianity – and some scenes are certainly uncomfortable. Shakespeare gives Bassanio and the play’s heroes all the figures, rhetoric and fine language of courtly gentlemen, but no-one could accuse him of not giving Shylock a voice. The Jew’s finest speech begins with the kind of inspirational language familiar from nineteenth century abolitionist speeches, then doubles back down a dark path indeed:

Hath not  a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if we poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? if we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

The legal expert called in by the court to settle Shylock’s demand for his pound of flesh turns out to be Portia in disguise, and though she gets some of the most beautiful and eloquent language in the play:

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

Yet when Shylock will not show that mercy, she avails herself of a legal quibble that wouldn’t hold up a moment in any proper court of law, and has him harassed and taunted from the stage. Unlike its great predecessorChristopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, where the anti-hero Barabas is an entertainingly diabolical rogue capable of poisoning whole convents of nuns to get his own way, and who dies after accidentally falling into one of his own death-traps, The Merchant of Venice evokes a surprising and persistent sympathy with its sullen, stubborn and covetous adversary. Long after the final page is turned, or the curtain falls, one might find oneself pondering whether the characters with the fine, elaborate speeches, the fancy clothes, the riches and the sex appeal, might just be the villains of the piece after all.

A Year in Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

IMG_0118I’ve been a bookworm all my life. Over the years I’ve acquired a number of related qualifications: a degree in English Literature, an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies, and a doctorate I’m still working on. I’ve read and enjoyed some of the biggest heavy-weights in the canon: James Joyce’s Ulysses, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Le Morte Darthur by Thomas Malory, and others too numerous to mention. I’ve got a chuckle out of Chaucer, forgotten a year’s worth of Anglo Saxon, and I scoff at those who find Shakespeare hard to read.

Except – and this is hard for me to admit – Love’s Labour’s Lost defeated me.

My only excuse is that I made a poor choice of edition. I was doing a lot of travelling at the time and couldn’t find a good individual printing, so I eventually seized up a copy of the complete works thaIMG_0117t once belonged to my uncle Gerry. It’s a bare utilitarian edition, with no footnotes, gloss, or help for the reader aside from a slim glossary at the back and a bare paragraph of introduction, warning me that ‘numerous topical allusions in the play make many lines hardly intelligible to a modern reader.’

I would have paid more attention, but I had good memories of Love’s Labour’s Lost in the last film version I saw, the splendidly cheesy Kenneth Branagh movie which attempts to blend Renaissance comedy with 1930’s movie musicals. The film was a box-office flop, but as a lover of Fred Astaire, William Shakespeare and Ginger Rogers, I’m squarely in the centre of the film’s tiny target audience. Which makes me feel smart.

Lulled by this false sense of security, I opened Love’s Labours Lost to confront Shakespeare’s expectations of his actual target audience – the classically educated, rhetorically aware courtiers surrounding Queen Elizabeth, compared to whom I am just another humbled, baffled groundling.

As the play begins, King Ferdinand of Navarre and his three courtiers are about to commit themselves to something that sounds distressingly like my PhD – a three year course of intensive study, augmented by fasting, enforced chastity, and sleep-deprivation. Their dedication is immediately put to the test by the arrival of the Princess of France and her three courtiers – and everyone rather conveniently falls in love with everyone else.

That’s the rudiments of a plot complicated with many misplaced letters and silly accents, obscene renaissance wordplay and obscure Latin puns. I sympathised most with Anthony Dull, a watchman, who certainly gets one of the best lines:
Holofernes: Via, goodman Dull! Thou hast not spoken no word all this while.
Dull: Nor understood one neither, sir.
Not that there isn’t a lot to enjoy about the play, but it would have been a lot better served in a better annotated edition, or in a luxurious illustrated copy to match the extravagant verbal artifice: the ‘taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical’ in which the play delights and abounds. The small print and tight margins of the edition might have lured me into the world of a bleaker, darker play, like Macbeth, but I found it insufficiently expansive for the comedies.

It was something of a relief to get to the ending of the play, which has puzzled critics for centuries. Just as it looks like everything is going to wrap up with multiple weddings, in the familiar manner, a messenger bursts on stage to tell the Princess of France her father has died, and she must come home at once. It’s an entrance that shocks the characters to their metatheatrical core: ‘Our wooing doth not end like an old play,’ as one complains to the other. ‘Jack hath not Jill.’ And then, thank goodness, the play closes with a musical number for a bit of light relief.

It would be remiss not to mention the missing sequel, the fabled Love’s Labour’s Won. Did Shakespeare actually write it? Or was it simply an alternative title for an entirely different play? Love’s Labour’s Won has been identified at various times as The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Troilus and Cressida and As You Like It. There’s still an infinitesimally small chance it may yet turn up in some dusty, abandoned and ill-catalogued archive by the end of my Year in Shakespeare project to put me even farther behind than I already am. To be blunt, the possibility doesn’t exactly fill my soul with rejoicing. The idea of reading of the further adventures of King Ferdinand and the Princess of France fails to give me the same breathless anticipation as, say, the trailer to the most recent Star Wars movie. Maybe I should stick to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!

A Year in Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

51rNEMHE2gLI had been secretly dreading this play. It’s not that I don’t like Much Ado About Nothing, it’s just that of all Shakespeare’s plays, I find it loses the most on the page. Without the live charisma and sexual tension that real performers can bring to Benedick and Beatrice, I get bogged down in footnotes explaining various obscure Renaissance puns – and while there’s some fun to be had in discovering how many lewd innuendos the learned Shakespearean scholar can discover, there’s nothing that kills humour quite so much as having it dissected, analysed and attributed, with references to various learned journals and scholarly works.

I began daydreaming instead of the last time I’d seen it in the cinema, with a beautiful French girl on a hot summer’s afternoon in York…

Ooh! I thought to myself suddenly. I wonder if there’s a screenplay available!

A quick search confirmed that there was a paperback edition of the screenplay of Much Ado About Nothing, a film by Joss Whedon, available for under a tenner. Not only that, but the film itself was available on Netflix. Score!

Much Ado is the tale of two romances, neither of which run smooth. Claudio and Hero have been making eyes at each other for a while, but Benedick and Beatrice cordially detest each other, and exchange verbal barbs each time they meet. Don Pedro organises Claudio’s marriage with Hero and her father, Leonato, and to while away the time until the wedding, composes a scheme to bring Benedick and Beatrice together by making each believe the other is madly in love with them. In the meantime, Pedro’s melancholy brother Don John hates to see a happy ending, and is making plans with his subordinates, Conrad and Borachio, to separate Claudio and Hero. His first plan is to allege to Claudio that Don Pedro is in love with Hero himself; after this fails, he comes up with a more ambitious plan. He arranges for Borachio to seduce Hero’s maid, Margaret, while Don Pedro and Claudio, looking on from a distance, are convinced it’s Hero they’re seeing.

This leads to one of the most gut-wrenching wedding scenes ever written, where Claudio basically walks her up the the altar and then calls her a prostitute. Hero, not unnaturally, faints dead away, and Leonato, Beatrice and Benedick come up with a plan to pretend she’s dead until after Don John’s minions have confessed their treachery and Claudio has shown himself properly repentant. By then, Benedick and Beatrice have discovered the nature of the trick that’s been played upon them – but so inseparable have they grown from one another in the meantime that they agree to marry also, and the whole thing concludes in one of those happy endings that make Don John spit.

Thus far in the project, this is the farthest I’ve wandered away from the actual text of Shakespeare. The director mentions in the introduction that he’s cut it down by about a third, though I’d be hard put to identify any particular scene or passage that got the chop. What’s most striking is the sudden change in texture. This is an example of Shakespeare’s usual terse scene setting, which is merely a scene number and a list of the characters onstage.

Actus primus, Scena prima.

Enter Leonato Gouernour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his Neece, with a messenger.

I learne in this Letter, that Don Peter of Arragon, comes this night to Messina.

Joss Whedon’s screenplay takes a whole page to get to this point, in the course of which we’ve had a precredit sequence that completely alters our understanding of Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship by showing that they had a one night stand before the movie begins; then an establishing shot of black sedans rolling up the street towards Leonato’s estate. Then, only then, the opening scene, laid out in the clear, terse style of the shooting script.


The kitchen is abustle with people preparing food and elaborate punches, among the Beatrice (a few years older than we saw before) and HERO, her cousin, both working but neither clearly members of the household staff (who wear aprons). Beatrice wields a cutting knife, slicing oranges for a sangria.

LEONATO enters with Balthus, his ever-present AIDE. Leonato reads from an iphone…


I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this day to Messina.

And for viewers of the movie, there’s a second surprise. Leonato – Clark Gregg from all the Marvel movies – speaks with an American accent! For those used to the high theatrical English of the Royal Shakespeare Company it’s a very strange moment – but it’s a tribute to Amy Acker’s confident performance as Beatrice that by the end of the scene, it feels entirely natural.

Back to the screenplay. It’s very much a working document, rough around the edges but not without a certain charm. Whedon can’t seem to decide whether to print the rare blank verse sections of the play as verse or prose, resulting in some very odd typography. Sometimes he will let the dialogue continue for pages without an intervention, and when he’s describing the visually spectacular party scene, the result is hardly literary:


A bartender serves drinks. Claudio is surrounded by young men urging him to down a drink, frat-boy style…


People dive in, play about. Some with undies and shirts instead of suits, most with drinks.


On a trapeze, twin sisters perform an intricate, sensuous act…


A couple sneaks down past the back gate with amorous intent.

Excepting possibly the coy use of ‘amorous intent’, none of this language owes anything to Shakespeare – but there is something to admire in its terseness, its easy translation into the visual, and how unfazed it is by proximity to Shakespeare’s deathless verse and prose. There’s something also to be admired in the simplicity of Whedon’s solutions to complex plot problems – his notion that all the characters are simply roaring drunk the whole time certainly has something to say for itself. Another good notion is that Borachio’s behaviour – first scheming to slander Hero, then confessing and repenting all on markedly little provocation – is due to his being in love with Hero himself. This is very clear in the screenplay, but I hadn’t noticed it in the film – partly due to the fact that the actor playing Borachio appears to have only one facial expression.

This is far from the case with Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, who takes up a buffoonish role that offers very slender comic pickings indeed, and makes it genuinely funny. Douglas Adams, who remarks somewhere that there is nothing than seeing a certain type of old-school English actor trying valiantly to ham it up as Dogberry, would surely have approved.

Hard as it is to separate the screenplay and the movie – and I’ve barely tried – there’s a lot to love in both. After seeing so many English productions, it makes a pleasant change to watch one so thoroughly American – and not one whit ashamed about being so. Not to mention how pleasant it is to relieve that sunny afternoon in York, the entertaining few hours in the shade of the cinema, and the stroll through the cool evening streets thereafter…

A Year in Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives. Illustrations by John Austen

After reading Measure for Measure last week in a heavily annotated scholarly edition, I thought I’d take a new tack for The Comedy of Errors and read something designed for pleasure rather than education. It’s hard to get hold of the really, really nice editions on a student budget – neither the city nor the university libraries are likely to put them on loan, and my shelves run more to secondhand paperbacks than illustrated luxury hardback editions.

Fortunately Cardiff University has a handsome, modern and well-equipped Special Collections and Archives division – SCOLAR for short – in the basement of the Arts and Social Sciences Library. I turned up, surveyed the catalogues, ordered a few things and finally settled on a 1939 private press edition, published in New York by the Limited Editions Club.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.
Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives.

According to the notes in the library catalogue, the book is ‘quarter bound in white buckram over decorative paper-covered boards displaying floral and fruit motifs on pink ground with an abbreviated half title set within decorative border on upper front cover.’ Dr Melanie Bigold, my PhD supervisor, gets very excited by bookbinding, and can use it to tell you where the book was first printed and sold and what the printer had for breakfast that morning – talk about judging a book by its cover! As a complete layman in that field, I couldn’t say much about it – but there’s no denying it’s a beautiful piece of work.

The rest of the book held up to the promise of the cover. I can’t say any of the accompanying illustrations by John Austen ever particularly gripped me, but they were a colourful art deco diversion, and the artist had made the best of it given The Comedy of Errors isn’t a visually spectacular play to begin with. The paper was thick and creamy, the margins generous, the typeface bold and eye-catching. After the Arden edition of Measure for Measure where the footnotes often swallowed up half the page, it was pleasant to be reading something with no critical apparatus whatsoever – the last time that had happened was reading The Merry Wives of Windsor in a Complete Works edition where the text was squeezed in to the very edge of the page with hardly any margin at all. Also – in a first for this project – this edition preserves the original first folio spelling, which adds a wonderful texture to even the less interesting lines of dialogue:

Why prat’st thou to thyselfe, and answer’st not?
Dromio, thou drone, thou snaile, thou slug, thou sot.

The Comedy of Errors itself is a piece of comic virtuosity, the story of a pair of identical twins with the same name, separated at birth and unaware of each others existence, and their identical twin servants, ditto. Naturally everyone keeps mistaking Antonio and Dromio for their opposite numbers – I confess that, without the aid of footnotes or an introduction, I didn’t entirely follow who was supposed to be on stage at once – but I think some confusion is part of the point. After various misunderstandings, during which each Antonio is respectively arrested and committed, the play concludes with the usual scene of recognition, and the family reunited.

Cardiff University Library: Special Collections and Archives

In addition to having the most complex plot, it’s also the most elaborately poetic Shakespeare play I’ve read so far, even more so than Two Gentlemen of Verona, my previous benchmark. The play is written entirely in verse, and goes so far beyond the usual iambic pentameter that characters speak in rhyming couplets for entire pages – as in the quote above – and sometimes break into longer and more discursive hexameter or octameter lines. This elaborate formal invention matches well with the play’s complex, self-confident and symmetrical plotting. Reaching the final lines of Shakespeare’s shortest play, one feels its kinship to the short, controlled, rhetorically intricate forms the Renaissance revelled in, like the sonnet or the double-sestina. It will never have the popularity of one of the bawdier comedies or the bloodier tragedies – it sets itself out to be admired for its technical artistry rather than its drama or pathos – but as a work of self-conscious literary craftsmanship, it’s hard to think how it could have been done better. Reading it in an edition that was itself a work of high-end literary craftsmanship only deepened this insight.

A Year in Shakespeare: Measure for Measure

Book in one hand, placard in the other!
Book in one hand, placard in the other!

The Languages and Literature collection on the second floor of Cardiff Central Library was the dark secret of my undergrad. When the essay titles came out and the shelves of criticism on Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare emptied as if by magic, I’d abscond to the public library. They’ve a really good range of key texts, the Cambridge Companions and popular histories, and it saved me from having to beg coursemates for books on social media, or hand over an even larger chunk of my student loan to Blackwells in return for a book I was only going to use once.

Last Saturday, I nipped upstairs, located the Shakespeare section – which features an impressive range of DVDs to complement the books – and grabbed a copy of Measure for Measure, the fourth play in my attempt to read all the plays of Shakespeare in a year. It was in the Arden Shakespeare series, the rigorously edited, comprehensively annotated scholarly edition of choice. I was pleased to see no-one had skimped on out-of-date editions. Then I hurried back out the front, grabbed a placard protesting spending cuts and joined the crowd gathering in front of the building, clutching their favourite books in hand.

Cuts are biting hard in Cardiff, and the library service is taking the brunt. It’s usual for cuts to pinch hours and services, but Cardiff’s Central Library, one of the most handsome and best-stocked libraries in the world, has been decapitated. It’s entire top floor, with its local studies collection, has been closed off and mothballed. In addition, it’s lost the ability to open on Wednesdays, it may have to share space with social services, and staff have been warned not to discuss the cuts on social media. Bad enough, but it was the council’s decision to close and sell off seven of its local branch libraries that first mustered the people of Cardiff to gather in protest and make their voices heard. In a previous job as a bicycle courier, I got to know and visit many of those libraries, relishing the time to take a break, use the loo, and cast an appreciative eye over the fiction section. All of them were bright, busy and well-stocked, and all of them will be missed. And so I chose to celebrate an institution where I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours of my life by spending a few more rereading Measure for Measure, a classic story of hypocrisy and overbearing authority. Replace the Puritan zeal of Angelo, the ruler of Vienna, with the neo-liberal zeal of Cardiff’s city councillors, and the tale becomes very timely indeed.

It’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – and coincidentally enough, the first Shakespeare I ever saw in Cardiff, performed on an unusual square stage down at the Bay. I was so close to the action that the actors would come and sit in the chair beside me when they were offstage – which, given that it was a reduced company, wasn’t very often. Despite this, the nightclub staging, complete with whiskey bottles (actually cold tea – I tasted) well-reflected the play’s concerns with decadence and propriety. The way the vile hypocrisy of Angelo seeps out from behind his icy facade was aptly reflected by giving the actor the dual role of Mistress Quickly, the owner of a brothel. It was one of those performances that makes someone know and understand and like the play better as a text.

measureIt’s the kind of performance worth reliving in the mind as I make my way through the pages of the Arden edition of Measure for Measure, which was all too clearly designed for scholarly use rather than reading pleasure. The introduction runs to nearly a hundred pages, devoted variously to questions of authorship, dating and sources before finally condescending to offer a few critical notes on the play. Similarly, the footnotes appear in two columns of small print and even then can swamp as much as half the page, forever sending the reader hither and thither after renaissance plays, modern critics and classical manuals of rhetoric. If you’re reading Shakespeare in order to give yourself a cheap library education, however, it’s hard to think of a better edition you could choose. Long may it grace the shelves of Cardiff Library!

A Year in Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Scan 7This is an odd play to come upon at this point, only three texts into my grand project to read all the works of Shakespeare in a year. In truth, it’s the closest Shakespeare ever came to writing the Renaissance equivalent of a spin-off TV show. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted with Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, that when he stomped off the stage at the close of Henry IV Part 2, she demanded the playwright write a sequel, bringing the fat knight to England in the modern day and giving him a love story. In some accounts, she was so impatient she only gave him a fortnight to write the play. Wisely, Shakespeare did as the Queen bid him, but – perhaps wary of the possibility of having to write new episodes of The Falstaff Show until Kingdom Come – promptly killed Falstaff off at the beginning of Henry V. But all of that is a long way in the future – somewhere in June, when I’m out of the comedies and midway through the histories.

In search of an interesting edition to read the play in, I turned to the bookshelves in the postgraduate office, ever an interesting guide to people’s interests and research topics. My colleague Calum Gardner thoughtfully allowed me to borrow a thoroughly charming early twentieth-century edition, printed in New York and previously belonging to one A. Napier. There was no date on it anywhere I could spot, but it’s dedicated to Sir Henry Irving, a famous Shakespearean actor who also employed an Irish scribbler of penny dreadfuls with the unlikely name of Bram Stoker. Irving also provides part of the introduction to the edition, in a short and a wittily sarcastic essay on the Baconian controversy. His suggestion is that Francis Bacon wrote the entire output of the Elizabethan stage, including Shakespeare, but notes that who actually wrote Bacon’s work for him remains forever a mystery. It seems as likely as any of the other conspiracy theories!

Among the other treasures in the old book are a scattering of early photographs of Shakespearean actors and actresses. The Merry Wives of Windsor is represented by a studio portrait of Ellen Terry as Mistress Ford; Terry was one of the most famous actresses of her day, now sadly only known for having been Dickens’s mistress. In a delightful period feature, a collection of tabs recessed into the sides of the pages make it easier to flick from play to play.

Turning to The Merry Wives, I am struck once again by the comparison to what went before – the language of Two Gentlemen of Verona was elaborate, beautiful and almost constantly in blank verse; Merry Wives is written mostly in prose, and the language is heavily spiced with Welsh and Spanish malapropisms from the two comic rivals in love, Sir Hugh Evans and Doctor Caius.

Scan 5But it’s not their play. It’s not even Falstaff’s play, though he steals every scene in which he appears. Uniquely, the heroes are two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, to each of whom Falstaff sends exactly the same letter, pledging his whole heart and undying affection, and not realising that these two best friends might just get together and uncover his ruse. Together, they foster a scheme not only to humiliate Falstaff for his impudence, but to teach Mistress Ford’s needlessly suspicious husband a lesson in trust, climaxing in a night of fairytale revels that looks forward to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My favourite line in the production belongs to Mistress Page, in conversation with the jealous Mister Ford:

Ford: Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?

Mrs Page: Truly sir, to see your wife. Is she at home? 

Ford: Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company; I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.

Mrs Page: Be sure of that, – two other husbands.

Actually, my favourite Merry Wives joke belongs not to any of the characters in the play, but to that well-known master of mirth and merriment, Kaiser Wilhelm II. It’s his only recorded joke. Due to wartime anti-German feeling, King George V issued a proclamation changing the Royal Family Name from ‘Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’ to the more English sounding ‘Windsor’. Kaiser Bill shrugged this off this snub by saying he looked forward to seeing a performance of The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Heh. I fancy Shakespeare would have groaned as loudly as the rest of us.

A Year in Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

I’ve always loved reading on trains. The views are great, you can do what you like, and the romance of travel always stirs something in me. This Saturday’s trip to London proved particularly pleasant, going from the grey predawn drizzle of Cardiff into the Newport sunrise, to snow on the fields of England and ever-changing January skies – very beautiful to look at while sheltered from the constant alternation of sunshine, rain and hail. It was a perfect time for the second part of my project to read the Complete Works of Shakespeare in a year.

IMG_0845After reading The Tempest in the RSC’s modern edition of the First Folio, I decided to do something different with Two Gentlemen of Verona and read it in the oldest edition Cardiff University Library still kept on loan. After a few minutes browsing the dustiest and least regarded avenues of Shakespeare Criticism, I found myself holding a 122 year-old edition published in 1893 as part of the original Cambridge Shakespeare series. A tall book printed on handmade paper with generous margins, it was clearly something of a prestige object, and the bookplates in the endpapers revealed a long working life. Originally part of the City of Cardiff Libraries Collection, it was withdrawn as duplicate stock and presented to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, as it was then, in 1939. Now broken in the spine and largely held together by sticky tape, it still proves a pleasure to read – thScan 6e thick luxurious paper feels good under the fingers, and the whole volume exudes a strange sweet smell, like aged honey. It feels strange to be bereft of the usual cribs and glosses with which modern editors fill the margins, and to find in its place a variorum commentary in the page footer referring to the long-superseded eighteenth-century editions of Pope, Theobald, Rowe and Johnson (of which, more later in the blog) but it adds to the interest of the reading experience.

And so to Two Gentlemen of Verona, regarded by critics as being one of Shakespeare’s very first plays – an interesting comparison with The Tempest, one of his latest and finest. If you’ve heard any of it at all, it will probably be these fine lines, which Tom Stoppard borrowed for Shakespeare in Love:

What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.
Except I be by Silvia in the night,
There is no music in the nightingale;
Unless I look on Silvia in the day,
There is no day for me look upon.

The plot bears many familiar Shakespearean comic motifs, later to be honed and finessed  in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It – girls dress up as boys, letters miscarry, and love affairs are pleaded by proxies with their own agendas. The eponymous Veronese gentlemen are Proteus and Valentine, who have been friends since the nursery. Proteus has long been in love with Julia, who grows to respond to his passion, but Valentine’s heart remains unencumbered until he is sent to Milan, and falls in love with Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. (What, if any, relation this Duke of Milan bears to the lineage we see in The Tempest is pure speculation – but he seems more than tyrannical enough to be Antonio, Prospero’s usurper. I know, I’ll be writing fan fiction next.)

This is the cue for a lot of charmingly silly romantic games that wouldn’t be far out of place in your average playground – Julia rips Proteus’s love letter in pieces, and then has a change of heart and goes to great lengths gathering up the fragments. She stamps on and scatters all those that bear her name, tucks all that bear his name in her bosom and, where the fragment bears both, folds them over so they kiss. Silvia, the more resourceful of the two, saves a lot of labour and invention by getting Valentine to write a love letter for her, to ‘a secret unknown friend’ and then pointedly delivering it back to him – something that has to be explained to the clueless Valentine by his valet, Launce, in the usual ‘cheeky servant’ role. His wilful misunderstandings and laboured wordplay quickly become tiresome, but his selfless devotion to his dog, Crab, is equally touching and hilarious.

A darker element to the plot emerges when Proteus’s peremptory father decides to send his son to Milan after Valentine. Proteus duly says his heartfelt goodbyes to Julia, exchanging rings and pledging eternal affection, and no sooner arrives in Milan than he forgets all about her and falls wildly in love with Silvia. His machinations cause the Duke of Milan to discover Valentine’s plot to elope with Silvia, and to banish him from the realm, while Proteus, pretending to forward the suit of the Duke’s preferred husband, the foppish and cowardly Thurio, pleads his own case to Silvia in the form of a series of very Shakespearean songs and sonnets. Unknown to him, his infidelity is witnessed by Julia, who has come to Milan disguised as a male page, and found a position in Proteus’s employ.

At this point the plot, which until this point has held up pretty well, begins to unravel. The exiled Valentine is captured in the forest by a bunch of soft-hearted outlaws, the elder brothers of the Pirates of Penzance, who elect him their King with comical haste. Back in Milan, meanwhile, Silvia enlists the aid of the honest widower Sir Plot-Device in order to escape her enforced captivity in her father’s house. Sir Plot-Device, the most thankless role in the production, duly rescues her, accompanies to the forest, and then vanishes from the play without a word. The reader is left to guess whether he was secretly murdered by Proteus or if he merely knocked himself out on a low-hanging branch. His absence gives space for the disgracefully rushes final scene, a confrontation between Proteus and Silvia in the forest, while Julia wrings her hands on the sidelines in disguise and Valentine, unknown to any of them, watches from afar. Maddened by lust, Proteus resolves to rape Silvia – at which point Valentine intervenes to avert tragedy. Proteus goes down on his knees and begs forgiveness, and in a worryingly short space of time – about 20 blank verse lines – Valentine forgives him, and seems to offer him Silvia as pledge of their renewed friendship. At this point Julia faints, and her disguise is penetrated by means of the rings she and Proteus exchanged earlier; Proteus is allowed to revert to his former love with hardly a word of blame. The Duke of Milan is dragged on stage by the outlaws just in time to give Valentine’s marriage his blessing and issue a general pardon, and the play concludes in the least convincing happy ending until I get round to Measure for Measure.

It would be no exaggeration to call the resolution problematic. I caught the cinema version of last year’s RSC production, which at least attempts to inflect Valentine’s forgiveness with some doubt and consideration by filling it with very long, awkward silences. Julia’s silence in this scene irritates me in the extreme. It would surely be a good moment to tiptoe up behind Proteus with a blackjack in hand, or at the very least, make a moving speech of dissuasion – but she remains voiceless and passive, and it’s only Valentine’s appearance that saves the day. Surely, having witnessed Proteus’s behaviour in the play, her opinion of him has changed? Just a trifle? Often with Shakespeare, I find myself wondering whether the problematic bits are really that bigoted, or just there to make you think. This time, it just feels like he was writing in a hurry, and produced a rushed and ill thought out conclusion to a play that, despite its flaws, remains broadly enjoyable, and shadows forward the greater dramaturgy and the more triumphant poetry of Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Sonnets.