Women and Shakespeare

S5: E2: Alexa Alice Joubin on Shakespeare & East Asia, Trans as Method, and AI in Shakespeare

May 23, 2024 Varsha Panjwani/Alexa Alice Joubin Season 5 Episode 2
S5: E2: Alexa Alice Joubin on Shakespeare & East Asia, Trans as Method, and AI in Shakespeare
Women and Shakespeare
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Women and Shakespeare
S5: E2: Alexa Alice Joubin on Shakespeare & East Asia, Trans as Method, and AI in Shakespeare
May 23, 2024 Season 5 Episode 2
Varsha Panjwani/Alexa Alice Joubin

Alexa Alice Joubin discusses Shakespeare and East Asia, Trans as Method, and AI in Shakespeare Studies and performance.

For a complete episode transcript, click http://www.womenandshakespeare.com
Alexa's Website: https://ajoubin.org/

Interviewer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Alexa Alice Joubin
Researchers:   Riley Coffman, Caitlin Finch, Alexandra Bianco
Producers:  Bianca Thakur
Transcript: Benjamin Poore
Artwork: Wenqi Wan

Suggested Citation:  Joubin, Alexa Alice in conversation with Panjwani, Varsha (2024). Alexa Alice Joubin on Shakespeare & East Asia, Trans as Method, and AI in Shakespeare [Podcast], Series 5, Ep.2. http://womenandshakespeare.com/

Twitter: @earlymoderndoc
Insta: earlymoderndoc
Email: earlymoderndoc@gmail.com

Twitter: @earlymoderndoc
Insta: earlymoderndoc
Email: earlymoderndoc@gmail.com

Show Notes Transcript

Alexa Alice Joubin discusses Shakespeare and East Asia, Trans as Method, and AI in Shakespeare Studies and performance.

For a complete episode transcript, click http://www.womenandshakespeare.com
Alexa's Website: https://ajoubin.org/

Interviewer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Alexa Alice Joubin
Researchers:   Riley Coffman, Caitlin Finch, Alexandra Bianco
Producers:  Bianca Thakur
Transcript: Benjamin Poore
Artwork: Wenqi Wan

Suggested Citation:  Joubin, Alexa Alice in conversation with Panjwani, Varsha (2024). Alexa Alice Joubin on Shakespeare & East Asia, Trans as Method, and AI in Shakespeare [Podcast], Series 5, Ep.2. http://womenandshakespeare.com/

Twitter: @earlymoderndoc
Insta: earlymoderndoc
Email: earlymoderndoc@gmail.com

Twitter: @earlymoderndoc
Insta: earlymoderndoc
Email: earlymoderndoc@gmail.com

Varsha: Hello, dear listeners. Welcome to Women & Shakespeare. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani, and I am often asked why, as a feminist and as a woman of colour, I continue to be interested in Shakespeare. Now I have posed this question to myself, and one of the answers I've arrived at is that because of the cultural significance of Shakespeare, we must engage with Shakespeare.

Varsha: Women's stake, their participation in Shakespeare, I think, is crucial because only by participating can we shape something so culturally central to our use. So many artists and critics have engaged with Shakespeare. The field of Shakespeare also proves fertile ground for discussing ideas about life, about death, about protest.

Varsha: This is probably why I have been drawn to the work of our podcast guest, Professor Alexa Alice Joubin. In our conversation, she told me that she thinks of drama as a humanities lab in which we unlearn our habits and learn new ways of looking at the world. So I hope that you will find fresh perspectives in this conversation.

Varsha: But first, a little bit more. Alexa Alice Joubin is a Professor at George Washington University. She combines her feminist, transgender, queer, and race advocacy with her knowledge of Global Shakespeare. 

Varsha: She's the author of numerous books such as Shakespeare and East Asia, Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange, and the co-author of Race. She has also edited numerous essay collections including Sinophone Adaptations of Shakespeare and Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace. She's also the founding co-director of the MIT Global Shakespeares, and she has edited a paradigm-shifting special issue on contemporary transgender performance of Shakespeare.

Varsha: We discussed some of these publications, and we also discussed her innovative teaching that has won her the inaugural Bell Hooks Legacy Award and Martin Luther King Jr. Award. Alexa, I really look up to you for your tireless passion for meaningful Shakespeare scholarship and activism. You are so welcome to Women and Shakespeare

Alexa: Thank you so much. It's an honour, Varsha. Looking forward to our conversation. 

Varsha: So I'm going to ask you the question that I ask everyone on this podcast. When did you first encounter Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter? 

Alexa: Well, in Taiwan, as a student, I read a Taiwanese translation of Charles and Mary Lamb's famous prose rewriting called Stories from Shakespeare. There were renditions of select plays from Hamlet to The Tempest and each play read like a short story.

Alexa: At that point in time, I had not seen any Shakespeare performed, and I was simply fascinated by the outlandish tales. And later on in college, I encountered Shakespeare largely in the visual form. So a lot of films, and I began seeing performances in English, in Chinese and in Taiwanese. And I discovered unpathed waters and undreamed shores, as Camillo says in The Winter's Tale.

Alexa: So what's so interesting for me is that Shakespeare's play showed me the beauty of foreign shores. I also discovered at that time the rich global histories of Shakespeare performance. Shakespeare apparently had been performed all over the world even though the field of Global Shakespeare didn't exist.

Alexa: All of these histories were understudied and that really led me to pursue graduate study in what is now known as Global Shakespeare. 

Varsha: That is quite an introduction, Alexa, to be encountering. Shakespeare at multiple language and mediums right from your childhood. It's very apparent to me how and why you wrote your very exciting book, Shakespeare and East Asia.

Varsha: So, for people who are yet to read it, might you please give us an overview of the book and also tell us what its goal was? 

Alexa: I wrote this book to mark my personal and professional journey from East Asia to North America to Europe, and I hope it pays tribute to the amazing work that artists both in Asia and the West have done with Shakespeare.

Alexa: I frequently ask myself questions about race and gender, but specifically how these roles would transform when the play is performed by Asian actors, right, how do unfamiliar accents expand the characters’ racial identities in the modern world? What if Portia in The Merchant of Venice has a Singaporean accent?

Alexa: The gender-fluid characters can now be interpreted as transgender. But how exactly do gender roles take on new meanings in translation? We can look at Twelfth Night as an example. Viola presents as pageboy Cesario and the lovelorn Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who declares that ‘I am the man … she were better love a dream’.

Alexa: Now, there's a double irony in that statement, but it becomes even more interesting when the play travels. On the Early Modern English stage, boy actors, such as Nathan Field, play Viola, playing Cesario. In modern-day, Mark Rylance plays Olivia in the 2012 London Globe production.

Alexa: Now, in Japan, in Yukio Ninagawa's 2005 Kabuki production, Onoe Kikunosuke, brought a new perspective to the notion of gender fluidity. So he played in quick succession, Viola, her twin brother, Sebastian, and her alter ego, Cesario. There's also an all-female troupe called Takarazuka in contemporary Japan.

Alexa: They did a musical production, and there was an otokoyaku, basically an actress specializing in male roles. So this actress played Viola and Cesario. As you can see, the gender crossing, or what some people have called the double-cross dressing, in Shakespeare has now gone in a different direction. And it's even more interesting because Japanese is a language that often elides the subject.

Alexa: So think of, you don't say ‘I’ when you make a sentence, and this is delicious ambiguity. So basically, since the 19th century, stage and film directors, they have mounted hundreds of adaptations. And many of these were drawn on East Asian motifs. They are not necessarily from Asia. Some were produced, say, in London or in the US.

Alexa: So I was fascinated by this. That's why I called my book Shakespeare and East Asia rather than ‘in Asia’. So my book look at out of these four centuries of fascinating histories and look at everything that happened after 1950s, so roughly in the post war era, in Japan, Korea, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Asian America, but also UK.

Alexa: And I look at what these artists have done with interpreting Shakespeares using Asian motifs, and I try to understand the role of performing arts, but also knowledge production in East Asia's relationship with the West. You know, what people think of Shakespeare and Asia, when they think of these two entities together.

Varsha: I really liked your insight in the exact translation where you were saying that ‘I’ is not used, because people often talk about what's lost in translation, but what you're telling us is what we gain in translation, these delicious ironies multiply. My question to you now is very linked with that. Because a lot of people still see Shakespeare as very inextricably linked with the English language.

Varsha: And you are fluent in multiple languages, which has obviously aided your research in East Asian Shakespeare. So are there any particular examples of translation that you have really enjoyed while you were researching for your MIT Global Shakespeares project and your new book, Sinophone Adaptations of Shakespeare: An Anthology 1987-2007?

Alexa: I suppose I should begin with one of the most famous sayings in Shakespeare, ‘to be or not to be’. But who is the subject? In fact, Shakespeare himself is brilliant at playing with multiple languages. This is well known, thanks to research from past decades, multilingual Shakespeare, right? How he evokes different worlds, how he refers to accents, but also use long words, borrowed words.

Alexa: And so, for me, actually, the Shakespearean canon itself is beautifully multilingual, and it stands to reason that the new beauty would emerge from this when you put Shakespeare through translations. Varsha, you mentioned my new book, Sinophone Adaptations of Shakespeare. I edited that book in which I and my team translated seven plays from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China back into English.

Alexa: So those plays were adaptations of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. It's really eye opening for us to go through the process of what we call ‘back translation’. In the Chinese rendition of ‘to be or not to be’, the language, unlike Japanese, you do need a subject. They all frequently add ‘I’ or ‘we’, or in the question form, ‘is it’, ‘is it advisable to do something’?

Alexa: If you think about Shakespeare's formulation, it's fascinating. It's so quotable, memorable, there's symmetry to it, even though it does not specify who the subject is. And further, it does not specify the action, right? The ‘to be’ verb, you'll find it in English grammar books. But it's almost never used in this form in spoken English: ‘to be’ – to be what? In fact, you need the object, so not just the subject is missing, but the object is also missing.

Alexa: So, when we wrestle with passages like this, and then when you engage with different languages, even with simple words like ‘fair’. Which typically means ‘white’, ‘beautiful’, ‘virtuous’. In a play like Othello, there's so much to be said, it makes you pause, right? The ‘to be or not to be’, or the word ‘fair’ in Othello, when engaged with translation or back translation, now you suddenly pause and rethink your assumptions, what do you assume to be very familiar.

Alexa: For me, ‘to be or not to be’ has a problem. It is too familiar to be properly known. Most people have heard of it, but they rarely pause and think about the same innovations as well as what it could actually possibly point toward and translations open up these gaps.

Alexa: So it is about what is gained in translation, but also ironically, in many ways, translations return us to the core of Shakespeare, to the undiscovered country, because it's too familiar. 

Varsha: I completely agree with you. Oftentimes, I think, oh, this is interesting, how they've translated this word, and therefore I go back to the text and look it up again.

Varsha: So let's go back to discussing your book, Shakespeare and East Asia, again. And here you talk about two Japanese directors that most film or Shakespeare buffs have heard of, Akira Kurosawa and Yukio Ninagawa, a film and a theatre director, respectively. And both have directed Macbeth. Can you talk a bit about how they both play with their mediums and how they have produced very unique Macbeth versions? I have to say that I saw the Ninagawa Macbeth and found it very unbearably poignant. 

Alexa: Me too. In 2018, there was a revival of Ninagawa's Macbeth in New York, shortly after the passing of the director. So achingly beautiful. Let me describe a little bit these two striking versions of Macbeth for our listeners.

Alexa: Yukio Ninagawa is the guru of Japanese theatre who is very active in the West. He toured to London almost every year, right, and he actually received a medal from the British government in appreciation of his contribution to cultural exchange and to British culture. Think about that, a Japanese Shakespearean director.

Alexa: So, he produced in the 80s, this famous ‘Cherry Blossom Macbeth’. It's a stage version drawing on Kabuki. It is extremely beautiful with ornate costumes, but the defining visual feature is a huge cherry tree on stage. And the beautiful petals, the pink petals will fall, as the blood bath unfolds in front of your eyes.

Alexa: So it's both Gothic, horrific, but also achingly beautiful, thanks to that cherry tree. That's kind of the career-defining production of Nagawa but also, a mainstay in Global Shakespeare. Kurosawa, the famous film director who has given us Throne of Blood, Seven Samurai, Ran, which translates to ‘chaos’, which is a version of King Lear, The Bad Sleep Well, which is Hamlet. Yes, actually influenced Western theatre a great deal.

Alexa: But notably, Star Wars. Many people didn't realize that. Now, Kurosawa's Macbeth, Throne of Blood, also known as The Spider's Web Castle. It is a samurai film that in premodern Japan, you have the struggles amongst samurai lords.

Alexa: What I want to contrast here very briefly is how to watch, how to look at these contrasting Macbeths, and how to listen to them. Let's think about how they use music and soundscape. Ninagawa mixes Japanese and Western musical themes. So, sounds of temple gongs can be heard alongside classical music. And, In the New York revival, for example, you have Fauré's Requiem with other pieces by Samuel Barber and Franz Schubert, along with Japanese music, just to establish the mood in terms of music and soundscape. It's beautifully hybrid and intercultural.

Alexa: Kurosawa, in contrast, uses music sparingly. Very little music. In fact, it is eerie, and silence plays an important role. For example, Lady Macbeth's famous sleepwalking scene in the film. You don't hear anything other than the ruffling of her kimono on the floor. So the soundscape here creates a chilling effect.

Alexa: The music mimics the function of a multi person chorus in Noh theatre. So listeners at this point, you probably realize Kurosawa and Ninagawa, they both draw on traditional Japanese theatre, Kabuki and Noh. In terms of visuals, Kurosawa's films are animated by visual framings of both the natural and human worlds as inhospitable spaces, taking a cue from what Banquo calls ‘instruments of darkness’.

Alexa: Ninagawa also loves framing devices. He uses those devices to set the mood and immerse the audiences. Notably, in his Macbeth, he draws inspiration from this Butsudan family altar. So in every Japanese family, there's a little altar where the ancestors sit, right? Ninagawa amplified that. So it's a family altar writ large, kind of life sized, and the characters walk on stage around this altar.

Alexa: It's surreal, but also beautifully familiar for his Japanese audiences. So these are just examples of how the two are similar, but also how their approaches offer strong contrast to each other. 

Varsha: You were talking about how these directors have had huge influence on Western theatre and Western arts and films.

Varsha: So global exchanges are definitely a two-way traffic, so it is not only Shakespeare that has influenced artists in the East. In fact, as you were saying, Eastern art, story, myth have also influenced artists Western directors doing Shakespeare, and I can think of Peter Brook's famous A Midsummer Night's Dream production with fairies reimagined as Chinese acrobats.

Varsha: What are your thoughts on such lines of influence and such productions? 

Alexa: These influences are hugely important, even though they are often overlooked. People tend to think of Shakespeare being linked to Englishness, while in fact, in our era, the most powerful spokesperson in the English language for Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh, is Irish.

Alexa: And the influences are overlooked perhaps because of assumptions of one-way street in terms of global cultural influences emanating from good old England through different parts of the world. Peter Brook is an excellent, excellent example. You know, beyond his famous Midsummer Night's Dream, there is Titus Andronicus, which fascinatingly, anticipates Ninagawa's own use of the red streamers.

Alexa: Both Brook and Ninagawa, they stylized violence in Titus Andronicus, and it is said that Brook's version truly rescued the play Titus. Before his production, people did not take Titus seriously. Because with the amount of bloodshed, it is assumed to be either inactable or not a serious tragedy. So that beautiful stylization with red streamers, with a lot of silk, right?

Alexa: Taking inspiration from Japanese Kabuki theatre, curiously, precedes Ninagawa's later production of Titus, which uses the same strategy to tour to London. And I thought this is just a prime example of not just influence, but actually Western directors are borrowing from Asian motifs ahead of an Asian director.

Alexa: I have another example, probably well known to our listeners. Michael Almereyda in 2000 directed a film version of Hamlet. It is set in Manhattan, and the whole film actually is replete with references to Asian motifs, that ‘to be or not to be’ scene, a modern Hamlet brooding in his room, in front of a television screen.

Alexa: The TV actually features a Vietnamese monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh, who unfortunately has now passed away, and it draws on the director's interest in Asian spirituality. So, the Buddhist Nhất Hạnh is doing a variation of the ‘to be or not to be’. Instead of the individualist, individualistic kind of Western assumption about being, he preaches about interbeing.

Alexa: None of us are alone. You ‘interbe’ with uncles, aunties, trees, and so on. And I thought that's a beautiful, even as we were here, um, Ethan Hawke's Hamlet do the famous ‘to be or not to be’ speech. But now with the insertion of that reference, I think the scene and the messages of ‘to be or not to be’ have become so much richer.

Alexa: Now, when people encounter Almereyda’s famous film, or when they teach it, usually these elements are looked over, but I think these are really important to take note of. And so these are just some examples of Eastern influences on Western Shakespeare. 

Varsha: I absolutely love the intercultural work it is doing, right?

Varsha: Like when Shakespeare is talking about to be or not to be, and then we have an example of spiritualism and we can compare these philosophies that weave big ideas around the world. I think that's really very intercultural and beautiful. So thank you for drawing our attention to that. Now, I want to ask you about your special issue of Borrowers and Lenders, and this is such a significant issue on contemporary transgender performances of Shakespeare.

Varsha: In the introduction to this issue, you propose trans as method, rather than as an immutable identity category that stands in opposition to more established ones. such as cisgender men or cisgender women. When I read your introduction, it really offered me a new way of seeing. So could you describe this methodology for our listeners, please?

Alexa: So when we think of gender, most people typically think of check boxes on some registration forms, or perhaps it is an ID that you hold that will provide an identification. Even trans is one of those categories, but that is not enough. Even if trans is part of the dropdown list, my trans as method looks at gender from a fresh perspective.

Alexa: In fact, gender is simply a set of social practices. It has to do with your mannerism, grooming habits, your choice of attire for a particular occasion in the morning and in the evening. It is different. Today is different from yesterday. This week is different from last week. Now, it may be very subtle, right? Yet there is difference.

Alexa: Crucially, crucially, gender as social practices evolve over time. We probably no longer engage in the same practices as when we were teens, right. And it also evolves in the presence of other people. So it's actually a set of interpersonal relationships. Gender is personal.

Alexa: Every person is entitled to define their own path and who they are. And yet it is also contextual. It's in the realm of the collective, beyond your own home. Hence so much struggle, right? And if we look at it this way, we will be able to emancipate interpretations of a lot of characters. In one of my talks recently, I alluded to whether there are transgender characters in Shakespeare.

Alexa: Experts may answer, yes. Amateur readers may scratch their head and wonder, ‘really, were there transgender characters in Shakespeare? I heard of a lot of cross dressing’. My answer is, historically, there are so many transgender characters that we have managed to overlook, due to what I call cisgender sexist bias.

Alexa: A cis bias manifests itself most visibly when people use the term ‘cross-dressing’. You know, cross dressing is actually somewhat problematic, because it already presupposes stable binaries. This kind of bias assumes all the characters are cisgender. And it kind of, it makes certain kind of practices invisible.

Alexa: This is reflected in the play text. In the beginning of today's conversation, I alluded to Cesario and Viola. If you pick up a copy of Twelfth Night, right? And throughout this story, the main character, is who? It's Cesario, and yet, if you look at the character name preceding all the speeches, it keeps saying Viola, Viola, and Viola.

Alexa: There's no Viola, there's Cesario. And to me, all the Violas are a violation of Cesario. So with trans methods, you have actually reopened Twelfth Night for a new reading, right? Cesario seeks employment at a court and, and the identity of Cesario makes his life worth living. After the scene on the beach, Viola disappears, Cesario as a trans man takes over, and his displacement is partially defined by his uneasy relationship with Olivia, who falls in love with him, and with Duke Orsino, with whom he's secretly in love.

Alexa: Cesario's personhood is affirmed and undermined by all of these characters at different points in time. So, traditional criticism, tripped up by the problematic misconception of cross-dressing as a convenient dramatic device, has overlooked all these trans cues. So what we need to do is suspend our cisgender sexism.

Alexa: Rather than engaging in suspension of disbelief when it comes to a story, right? We often think of cross-dressing as some kind of abbreviated act of make believe. And that's just one of many, many examples of this kind of misreading and the contemporary biases have been imposed on early modern text to overwrite the fluidity at the time.

Alexa: People ask me, you talk about trends as method, would it be ahistorical to apply these modern methodologies? In fact, it is ahistorical if we insist on modern biases and fail to account for different modes of being and thinking in historical times. Granted, back then, they did not use trans in this way, and yet that does not mean that trans life was not valid at the time, right? The difference in vocabulary is exactly the reason why we need to use a more open-ended method to look at all of these historical practices in text and in performative terms today when we perform Viola and Cesareo and Twelfth Night. Perhaps we should take a more open-ended approach. Because cisgender biases have diminishing returns. As characters in Twelfth Night, they do not, in fact, return to where, so-called, where they ‘came from’. There's no return to normalcy. And this is pretty amazing.

Alexa: And this is not just about providing new interpretations while trying to revive a certain dramatic work, but I frequently think of drama as a humanities lab. In this exercise, we unlearn our habits and we learn new ways to look at the world. And so, in the end, it benefits not just the production company, but actually the life that we will live outside the classroom and outside theatre.

Varsha: That's so important to bear in mind as well, because I've seen so many productions of Twelfth Night. But I'm pretty irritated by the fact that as soon as the ending is arriving, they rush off and Cesario comes back in the same dress that they were wearing. And that really annoys me because even in the text, nowhere is it mentioned that this actor will run off and come back in a dress.

Varsha: In fact, Duke Orsino keeps calling him master mistress, then he keeps calling him boy. So there are so many rich possibilities there which are, you know, closed down if we continue to think, as you said, with a sexist cisgender mindset. 

Alexa: I fully agree, Varsha. Cesario does not dress up frivolously for deception and double weddings are announced in the text but never staged. Most people forget that.

Alexa: And Cesario's personal truth is revealed by his choice of words and his action of not changing into, quote, maid's garments. It's mentioned that the captain will fetch them, but in fact, Shakespeare's text is open ended. So, in a way, for purists, this is a return to what Shakespeare wrote.

Alexa: I have to mention, in my research, cisgender identities are not fixed either. I continue to use cis and trans for now, because these terms are being circulated and there's work to be done, even though I believe one day we should transcend these terms. But that's in the future. 

Varsha: Yes, absolutely. And I am so happy that you drew our attention to gender as dynamic practice. We change every day. And if gender is a practice, then that changes pretty much from moment to moment, too. So that's great.

Varsha: In this article, you also say that Shakespeare holds a central place in facilitating transgender performance. So, you've told us a little bit about this, but could you elaborate what is it about Shakespeare that lends itself with trans studies and performance? And more importantly, why should trans studies and performance care about Shakespeare at all? 

Alexa: Excellent question. The fluidity and open-ended language in Shakespeare lends itself to trans methods, and trans and queer studies should care about Shakespeare because this is one of the most visible canons that is circulating in our culture in various forms, even if fragmented.

Alexa: So like it or not, in order to deconstruct historical cisgender sexist biases, one of the best places to start is with a group of highly visible and frequently quoted texts. So for these two reasons, I think the two should be brought together. 

Varsha: I now want to ask you about your engagement with generative AI or artificial intelligence. So you have given several high profile public presentations on this, especially at your keynote at Hong Kong Baptist University. So I want to know, why should we think about artificial intelligence and Shakespeare together?

Alexa: One of the projects I'm working on involves a case of audience members bring an AI app on their phones to attend a Shakespeare production. But first, let me just say a little bit about generative AI. It's a term that applies mostly right now to machine learning programs that are coded to produce texts that look new, but actually it's a version of the dataset it trained on.

Alexa: People often say it can write new text, but in fact, there's nothing new. It's entirely based on the datasets, and so you could feed it the Shakespearean canon and ask it to, you know, take it for a spin, like a juice mixer, and give us something, quote unquote, Shakespearean.

Alexa: In any case, we live in an inquiry-driven society right now, meaning that a lot of our life, research, teaching, and learning are filtered through algorithms. We engage in search activities every day from Google Map to research inquiries and an AI is playing a huge role in this. Artists, they do jump on the bandwagon. So that's the story I'm telling you now.

Alexa: This play is called All the World's a Screen, whose title nods to Jaques's speech in As You Like It and alludes to screens’ world making capacities. It was staged in Ireland in 2022 and 23. It was meant to promote culture exchange among deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing individuals.

Alexa: So, that's an Irish Sign Language production. And audiences who don't know ISL would aim their phone during the production to obtain live captioning, and that's driven by an AI. The actors perform snippets from As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Sonnet 18. 

Alexa: So, strikingly, the organizers envisioned the AI app as humans’ companions, as a machine guest, they say, that you bring to the production and has fundamentally changed how we understand theatrical publics because there are machine guests in the mix right now. Another striking example is Annie Dorsen, who calls herself an algorithmic theatre artist. She used AI in her Shakespeare productions, notably in this work called A Piece of Work.

Alexa: The production juxtaposed a live actor's performance with a god-like presence of AI-driven voice reciting randomly sequenced lines from Hamlet. Now, we know that Hamlet is a play traditionally understood to be an exploration of interiority and inner life. The title riffs on Hamlet's phrase, ‘what a piece of work is a man’, an allusion to the idea that AI generated texts may have unpleasant character flaws and a part of the production was manufactured by a machine.

Alexa: So all of these works that I mentioned, they're kind of creatively using AI to prompt people to reflect more. Algorithms are around us, algorithms are largely invisible. That's the point, right, but they are always there. Now with high quality prompts, the outputs by generative AI simulate human speech, and I think that has huge implication in the field of Shakespeare study.

Alexa: The AI is coded to produce synthesis or anonymize public voices. That's my view. And so this AI is a ghost. It's a ghost of the public, but it's also a shadow public. I think of King Lear as a Shakespearean. You know, King Lear famously asked, ‘who is it that can tell me who I am’ when he's angry, driven out the door by his daughters.

Alexa: Now the Fool answers wittily, ‘Lear's shadow’. When we interact with AI, we’re not interacting with God or a machine. We're interacting with ourself. We are King Lear, right? The AI is our shadow. We are reminded of versions of ourselves when using AI to generate texts. Uh, we need to remember the performative nature of the AI output.

Alexa: So I have been teaching with AI, rather than against AI, to highlight all of these aspects and look at it as an impromptu performance machine. And I hope going forward, all of us can think more about what writing is, the nature of ‘words, words, words’ as Hamlet says, and how we can use AI more appropriately if we understand now that it is, in fact, not generating new information. 

Varsha: Oh, cool. The idea of AI as our companions and shadow selves. Which they of course are, but again, kind of the act of critically thinking about them is really, really important. Thank you. I am passionate about teaching and pedagogy, and that is why my final question is about that. 

Varsha: So in your article ‘Teaching Shakespeare in a Time of Hate’ in Shakespeare Survey, in this you discuss how Shakespeare's writing can be a useful tool in tackling challenges of all forms of violence, including racism, antisemitism, misogyny, and transphobia, and you especially advocate new theories and practices of listening for silenced voices. Now, that is one of the things that this podcast is obviously very passionate about. So could you unpack this for our listeners? 

Alexa: Yes, one of my strategies to teach in a time of hate, the time we live in, is radical listening. This is a term used by Rita Charon, founder of Narrative Medicine. It's basically a set of communication methods that attend to motivations, rather than superficial plot elements. That attends to what is unsaid, or silence, rather than what is explicitly said.

Alexa: I think a character like Ophelia, who doesn't say much, does that always and automatically mean that she's weak? How about Cesario, whose story is often buried under cisgender biases? So the strategy of radical listening basically enhances a sense of inclusiveness in the classroom.

Alexa: And so based, and in most basic form, I'm just advocating for transcendence beyond the literal, you know, what is written, what is explicitly announced. In fact, if you think about how drama works, it is all about the unsaid. It's not necessarily what the character said in this moment. And so radical listening can also be combined with what is called presentism.

Alexa: Kind of think about how the past is at work in the exigencies of the present. And we can, of course, link immediately Othello to the Black Lives movement. We can link Measure for Measure to the #MeToo movement. But beyond that, in pragmatic terms, radical listening and presentism, they create connections between seemingly isolated instances of artistic expressions or isolated historical moments.

Alexa: And that gives us mental capacity to truly process the complexity of our moment beyond the kind of simplistic form of, ‘oh, there's a long history of queerness, longer than you thought’. Of course, that's important. But I think to truly be able to have a global perspective, to appreciate a deeper longer history would enable us to deal with ambiguity. You know, ambiguity can help connect minds for global change.

Alexa: Not everything is always black and white, right? Perhaps for the better. And we can then transcend the binaristic modes of thinking as well, right? Male, female, black, white, and many other instances of kind of dualistic modes of looking at the world. There are a lot of ambiguous characters that could be particularly fruitful ground for this kind of exploration and mental exercises.

Alexa: Last but not least, radical listening could also help us rethink common classroom practices, such as trigger and content warnings. Commonly practiced in secondary and higher education in the US, UK, and Canada, trigger warning is basically a statement on the syllabus about certain contents to be covered.

Alexa: It's a bit of – usually, it's a one-way communication. So I have used radical listening to turn it into a community exercise, communal, even. Ask students, you know, what would you deem, right? If you were on the film rating board, or if you were to teach this one day, what might you consider to be triggering?

Alexa: What's so interesting is that actually we discovered that trigger warnings attend only to a certain groups’ comfort. Misgendering acts using the wrong pronouns or deadnaming a person are not typically listed as triggering. Outside of trans studies courses, trans misogyny is rarely listed as triggering.

Alexa: So the content warnings should really critique institutionalized sexism, cis sexism, racism. If you think about Titus Andronicus, the contemplation of murdering a mixed-race baby. Well, Black baby. Why is that not as often mentioned as the rape and mutilation of a White woman, Lavinia? All of this begs the question of what inclusiveness truly means.

Alexa: So by saying all this, I simply meant that it's important to have community rather than, you know, teaching in a time of hate is actually all about building communities with radical listening. We can listen to each other, go beyond the superficial. I hope these tips are useful to our listeners in terms of excavating silent voices in all kinds of text.

Varsha: Fabulous. Thank you so much. I think that has given our listeners lots of things to try and take forward. And I think that they are going to think together with us. I'm sure. Thank you so much, Alexa. I learned a lot, as usual, from you. 

Alexa: Thank you, Varsha, and the Women in Shakespeare series. It is an honour and distinct pleasure. So wonderful. Thank you. 

Varsha: That was Alexa Alex Joubin talking about East Asian Shakespeares, trans as method to look at Shakespeare and the world, teaching in a time of hate, and Shakespeare and AI. 

Varsha: So with that, dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. But remember to tune in to Women and Shakespeare, streaming at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and numerous other platforms. If you want to listen to the podcast with a full transcript, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then, keep smashing the patriarchy.