Women and Shakespeare

S2:E1: Professor Diana Henderson on Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare Films, and Shake-shifting

January 23, 2021 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 2 Episode 1
Women and Shakespeare
S2:E1: Professor Diana Henderson on Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare Films, and Shake-shifting
Chapters
Women and Shakespeare
S2:E1: Professor Diana Henderson on Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare Films, and Shake-shifting
Jan 23, 2021 Season 2 Episode 1
Dr Varsha Panjwani

We discuss Virginia Woolf's collaborations with Shakespeare, Shakespeare Films, adaptations and Shake-shifting, and collaborative models for the discipline. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Professor Diana Henderson
Producers: Mr Kyle Eber and Ms Zoey Liu
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 


Show Notes Transcript

We discuss Virginia Woolf's collaborations with Shakespeare, Shakespeare Films, adaptations and Shake-shifting, and collaborative models for the discipline. Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.

Interviewer: Dr Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Professor Diana Henderson
Producers: Mr Kyle Eber and Ms Zoey Liu
Artwork: Mr Wenqi Wan 


Varsha:

Hello, hello. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani and I am so thrilled to welcome you to series two of the 'Women & Shakespeare' podcast. Today, I want to talk about forerunners and role models. In her germinal essay, 'A Room of One's Own', the writer and feminist, Virginia Woolf, writes "Without forerunners, Jane Austen and the Brontes and George Eliot could no more have written than Shakespeare could have written without Marlowe or Marlowe without Chaucer." Here, she emphasizes how important it is for women to see women who have gone on before us because they show us that shut doors can be opened, barriers can be broken and new alternative worlds created. The best of these women also hold the door open or lend a helping hand to others coming up behind them.

Varsha:

So 'Women & Shakespeare' Series Two continues emphasizing the voices of scholars and practitioners who have paved the way for us and empowered us to find our own voices. So it is my absolute privilege to introduce you to our first guest who does just that with her deep commitment to collaborative networks across generations and across borders, one of my personal role models, Professor Diana Henderson. She's professor of literature at MIT and co-editor of the journal, 'Shakespeare Studies'. She has published so widely and on such a diverse range of topics that I'm only mentioning the ones that we had time to discuss in this episode. Check out her book, 'Collaborations with the Past: Reshaping Shakespeare Across Time and Media', and her edited collection, 'Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen.' And do get your hands on the timely essay collection, 'Shakespeare and Digital Pedagogy', which she's co-editing with Dr. Kyle Sebastian Vitale.

Varsha:

I would also highly recommend the open access course that she has developed. It is 'Global Shakespeare: Re-Creating the Merchant of Venice', and it's full of insights and resources on this hard hitting play, which has benefited from a global approach. Professor Diana Henderson, I am so thrilled to have you on this podcast because I really think that your multifaceted career and a very exciting career will be such an inspiration to women, students and scholars who listen to this podcast. So welcome.

Diana:

Thank you.

Varsha:

I just want to begin by asking, when did you first encounter Shakespeare and what was the nature of that encounter?

Diana:

It's an excellent question and it's so far back. To be honest, I am relying on my father's report. So I lived in London when I was seven and eight and we went to Stratford and saw 'Hamlet', a very famous now production with David Warner playing Hamlet, Glenda Jackson as a very young woman playing Ophelia, and my father tells me I was enraptured. I don't remember that part. I do remember going and thinking, "That was kind of cool." And then I came home and we did follow up. I think he realized that was working for me. My first time I can remember studying it, I was in seventh grade, American style, that would be about 11 and playing Titania with my friend of me, Tommy, as Bottom being very embarrassed wearing my sister's tutu and thinking it was all very silly, but it was awfully fun. So to experience it first, by seeing excellent performance, then performing not so excellently and finally studying it, was a really lovely sequence.

Varsha:

That's great. And a lot of guests have actually told me it's theater that has enraptured them and brought them to Shakespeare. My students on the other hand, tell me that it is the adaptations of Shakespeare that they encounter first. So I want to ask you about terminology that is involved in looking at these so-called adaptations. And scholars refer to these variously as appropriations, adaptations, remediations, intertexts and a whole lot of other things. But I think you've introduced a brilliant term, Shake-shifting I absolutely love it. So in your own words, what is Shake-shifting and why did you feel the need to coin this?

Diana:

Thank you. Unlike my readers for the Scholarly Press, who did not love it enough to allow me to keep it in my title of my book-

Varsha:

Such a shame.

Diana:

I felt so. They thought it was a little too playful, not that serious tone they were looking for. So it became only the title of my first chapter, but I appreciate that you're calling it out. The title ended up with the word collaborations. What those two terms share in a different own is people being central to the process. All the other words you mentioned, they have their merits, but say especially something like the one often used appropriation. Well, it makes it sound like you're doing something wrong. Adaptation also I understand it, it's sort of developmental, has a little too much ring to me of Darwinian progress and I'm not always sure we're going in a straight line to progress.

Diana:

We're doing something to make it fit our moment and our priorities. So Shake-shifting seemed to me fun. It takes the name and plays with it and that's what I'm talking about is artists playing, thinking, rethinking. Scholars too shifting their priorities when they read these texts or see them to fit their own moment. So it's that shifting in time and place that I wanted to call out, to make visible the work of people who shift the play and do all that labor to reimagine. I think it's really important to be aware of that creative work, not just Shakespeare's creative work and to understand it before you judge it, I think just generally speaking. So I found Shake-shifting was playful, fun. I ended up using collaborations with the past and thinking across both time and medium. Collaboration too gets that notion of people being involved, both Shakespeare and now, but also has an undertone the idea of sometimes we are collaborating with things we don't actually like. So the political term collaboration in the 20th century had very negative political associations with the Vichy government in France and before that, with socialism in Russia when people were accused and removed from the party. I wanted to get some of the negative possibilities as well. What are we buying into sometimes be it in terms of gender, be it in terms of a aristocratic vision?

Varsha:

We'll get back to collaboration in a moment, but I love how Shake-shifting specially feels like it's a noun, but it's also a verb. So it's concentrating, as you said on shifting it to fit the present moment without value judgments involved in the term itself, but also how it, by being sounding like a verb like you're Shake-shifting, it makes us aware of the labor that's involved there.

Diana:

And acting is doing not just viewing.

Varsha:

Absolutely talking about sometimes uneasy collaborations, your book which is called 'Collaborations with the Past: Reshaping Shakespeare across Time and Media', you talk about the Shake-shifting techniques of the writer feminist, Virginia Woolf. So for the benefit of the listeners who are yet to read the book, because they will, I'm sure after this, could you tell us how Virginia Woolf collaborates with or uses Shakespeare?

Diana:

There are so many ways. So first off I needed teaching because when I first read 'Mrs. Dalloway', well tried to, I picked it up in high school and I put it down again because the sentences are long. I wanted to know what was going on. It's difficult work. And when I got to college, I had an excellent teacher. So it's a reminder that sometimes the things that stay with you and become crucial to your own literary sensibility or your work are not the things that you can just pick up on your own and love. So with a good teacher's guidance, I fell in love with the works of Virginia Woolf, among them; 'To The Lighthouse', 'A Room of One's Own', which in a way have a more overt connection with Shakespeare, 'Orlando' a sort of playful work she did in honor of her friend, Vita Sackville-West and then made into a much larger book as she went along.

Diana:

All those works actually either call out Shakespeare or are more pronounced in their usage than perhaps Mrs. Dalloway. But I was thinking about Mrs. Dalloway and it does quote Shakespeare three times. Three different works, 'Othello', when it's talking about a love that Mrs. Dalloway, the titular character is thinking back to her young adult love for her friend, Sally Seaton. And she says, "If it were now to die, 'Twere now to be most happy." And that's a quotation from Othello before everything goes wrong in his life. So it's a rather sad commentary on a love that Clarissa Dalloway also feels could not be realized or carried forward. A second way Shakespeare overtly appears is 'Antony and Cleopatra' when Septimus Smith, another major character, who never knows Mrs Dalloway but they seem to echo one another's thoughts in very interesting ways. Septimus goes to war, world war one and is damaged by his experience in the war.

Diana:

And before he goes rather cutely, it said that he went mainly to fight for things such as Ms. Isabella Pohl, who was his teacher in night school when he came to London who had read 'Antony and Cleopatra' with him, and that shown him the beauty of Shakespeare and that these were the things he was going into world war one to fight for it. When he comes back from the war damaged he turns to 'Antony and Cleopatra' again, and it's a totally different play. It's horrific to him. The body. The nastiness of physicality because he's gone through this trauma and he's seeing everything through that. So it's a very resonant use of Shakespeare's two tragedies there. But there's a third quotation and to me, it's absolutely important, not only as a quotation, but it revealed to me as I studied something about the structure of how Woolf uses Shakespeare. And it's "Fear no more the heat o' the sun", which is a dirge from the late play 'Cymbeline'.

Diana:

Most people haven't read 'Cymbeline' or seen it often. And in that work, it's a very calming, sad song and you think it's about death and it is in one sense, but in the play it's sung over a woman who they think is a man. She is dressed up as a man. You recognize the Shakespeare comedy tropes, but through sort of fairytale like wanderings and machinations, she seems to be dead, but she's not. So her brothers, who she doesn't know are her brothers and they are princes, they don't know their princes, all this romance and fairytale surrounding...They are saying this dirge over her body. And it's both then in its own language, a beautiful consolation that death brings us all together. There are tyrants, there are no differences of class, no differences of gender. It's all over. And it's not... There's an afterlife or anything else, but it's just calming.

Diana:

And that is the book that Mrs. Dalloway when she goes out in the morning, sees in Hatchards Bookstore, which is still there along Piccadilly, you can see it. Sometimes they have Woolf books in their windows. Mrs. Dalloway sees that in the window and it haunts her for the rest of the day. Also, it's haunting Septimus. So this is one of the ways Woolf brings their two stories, crossing gender, crossing class together is through the shared thought in their minds of fear no more. And without giving too much of the plot away to say that it recurs at two crucial moments, both at the culmination of Septimus' story and at the culmination of Mrs. Dalloway's story, which is that she's bringing people together at a party. She goes into a private space and thinks Fear no more and links herself with Septimus. So what I saw was a very artful use of Shakespearean Romance.

Diana:

It also is a way of bringing the major characters from her youth together at the end, in a non conventional romance frame. That is her friend, Sally, who I mentioned earlier and Peter who wanted to marry her and she rejected. They're all together at the end and so it's not a heterosexual romance narrative i.e. the typical "woman's novel". So Woolf is very intentionally giving us all the different kinds of love relationships and then prioritizing a community in which Clarissa gets to be. "And there she was" is the end of the book. And she gets to be central without being subordinated to Mr. Dalloway. So what I was talking about in the book is how Shakespeare becomes useful for Woolf to reanimate her own writing and the novel form in a way she felt was more appropriate.

Varsha:

And also I like how you were talking about how Shakespeare helps shape Woolf's thoughts, but also how then Woolf reimagines Shakespeare's writing. So it is really a two way thing that Shakespeare gets reinvented every time someone collaborates with him.

Diana:

That's right. What gets left out in Shakespeare and Woolf is very aware of that, the idea you think about 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', Helena and Hermia who were like two twinned cherries. But only until you get that heterosexual marriage plot comes between them and clamps down alternative stories. And I think Woolf certainly saw the limitations of that and whilst her own marriage was a happy one with Leonard, it was not a conventional one and she saw other possibilities very progressively in terms of the time period.

Varsha:

Before we were recording, we were discussing Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own' in which Woolf creates a fictional sister for Shakespeare. Our listeners would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Diana:

My teacher had me going and starting by doing an annotated bibliography on the concept of androgyny in Woolf does cite Shakespeare when she talks about the androgynous artists. It's an ideal for her and it's not clear whether she means beyond gender, fusion of the genders or on a continuum, or whether she means a balance between male and female principals. In her time period, that was quite in itself radical. And she cites Shakespeare as the writer in 'A Room of One's Own' who gets beyond. But then she also at the same time cites the limits of his female characters. So she doesn't entirely go one way or the other and this was a problem, a fascination all her life. Because in a way, she saw herself as the modern female at the end of a literary tradition who could re-animate it and that she could in a sense balance Shakespeare himself. So she, without having the audacity to say, that's what I'm doing, she creates an image of Shakespeare's sister in Shakespeare's time would not have been able to write the great works because of social conditions. But then she was trying to retell his stories in different ways.

Varsha:

Slightly different question altogether, but your book does talk about diachronic collaborations with Shakespeare. But what I can firmly attest to and have really benefited from, so, thank you, is your push towards intergenerational collaborations within academia, within Shakespeare studies especially, it would be really great if you could share some of the strategies which professors such as yourself could adopt to support and collaborate with early career academics.

Diana:

Thank you. And it's a treat to collaborate with you and the other earlier career academics, very established right now, but still earlier career who have brought such new perspectives, that's what. It benefits everyone if we work together and don't have generational competitions. The easiest thing is just to be quiet and listen, I think. For senior scholars, we have been trained so hard to think our value is in our own knowledge. That is how we get promoted and we're supposed to publish our thoughts. As you can already tell from my stress on collaboration, the artwork is a collaborative art form. There's no one person Shakespeare, even if it's a one person show, there are people backstage helping. It's a social form. The same thing is true of scholarship. We don't do it alone. And so the question then is who are we going to listen to?

Diana:

How anxious are we about having to assert our own perspective? I think Woolf here actually is very useful because she always was talking about the need to get rid of the ego getting in the way of really seeing what's in front of you. I think that's what we try to do when we're teaching texts. We try to hear different authors, different perspectives. The same thing goes for us. So if we're not all the time thinking about ourselves and thinking about the thing itself, whatever that thing is, we can hear valuable insights everywhere. So in your case, for example, bringing your experience, I am not British Asian. I have not the language. I never will to really know something like 'Omkara', which I've written about, from the inside. Vishal Bhardwaj is a wonderful director. There was much I can get from his plays bringing my background to bear, but there are things I can't. And so to be around you and others who brought a whole group together, including Bhardwaj, and to talk about the variety of Indian Shakespeares is just for me that re-animates the field. It brings new possibilities, new perspectives. So I think senior scholars have much to learn.

Varsha:

And just when you think that somebody is listening, that's very heartening in itself, but absolutely pushing for a more collaborative model as you propose. But let's now turn to another book, 'The Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen', which you edited. And in your chapter in the book, you again, urge the need to pay attention to the artistic process of making the film. So the labor involved, the people involved rather than just concentrating on films as finished products. Now, Pascale Aebischer also has said this in her book, 'Screening Early Modern Drama: Beyond Shakespeare', which I quite like as well. And Linda Hutcheon in a way too, has encouraged scholars to study the intentionality of creators in approaching adaptations. But what are the advantages of adopting this critical strategy?

Diana:

I think there are multiple. I think at the simplest level, it's what I was talking about in terms of performance itself. Until you've understood something inside out, not just looking at it, but how does it work taking it apart. This may be an MIT thing too, to reverse engineer something so you understand how it became what it is. It's an idea as old as Plato and Aristotle that you don't really know an object until you know how it was made, what it's made of as well as what it does, what its purpose is. So intentionality is part of that, but I'm interested in things that go well beyond intentionality as well. There are all sorts of conditions when you have different media and happenstance. Things you don't expect to happen can shape what you're actually seeing. To be aware of it, not as an idealized form, but real people in the real world with always some limitations and issues will arise to understand it in those terms and think, "okay, they managd this; maybe not that". And not to come to one sweeping - "It is a good or a bad version because..." And so I think it lets us have more space to notice. It also just brings it into our real world rather than being something that shuts us out that we have to only appreciate or not. So I like that part of it.

Varsha:

And to continue this conversation really about examining all elements of Shakespeare on film, I really love the way in which you outline the shaping potential of the camera in a particular article, 'A Shrew for the Times, Revisited'. And you talk about Franco Zeffirelli's 1967 film of The ''Taming Of The Shrew. And almost in contrast to Laura Mulvey is a very famous assertion that the gaze of the camera's male, you argued that in this movie at least, sometimes the camera's perspective aligns with Katherine's and at other times the camera fills in her silences by zooming in on her gestures and her thinking. So my question is this, do you think that movies then have a special ability to force us to rethink women characters in Shakespeare? Because women characters in Shakespeare are silent at many pivotal moments and the camera can really make something more of the silences maybe than a stage performance.

Diana:

There are two parts in that question. And on the one hand, I'll say yes, on the other hand, I want to do a caveat to say, I don't believe in medium specificity in what we call formalist way. That is, I would not say that inherently, the camera becomes a better way to show, say, women's silence in isolation than the stage. Because I've seen, for example, Livia Truly did a beautiful 'Hamlet' many years ago in which Ophelia was shown in a spotlight from overhead, utterly isolated just her and that light, surrounded by darkness at a certain moment. And it stays with me many decades later as a vivid way of showing her just her lack of agency and control. So that can happen on a stage, but what I would say is the camera is an opportunity as well as a limitation in the ways that a movie... Again, within her time, within her moment, within a particular kind of Hollywood cinema, I think she's often accurate about how the camera was used to objectify women, glamorize them, et cetera.

Varsha:

Absolutely.

Diana:

So I'm certainly not undermining that. Teresa de Lauretis listed some very nice work on updating some of those ideas in her 'Technologies of Gender' book. So I learned a lot from that. I would say though, that the camera can work differently and so that's where you can get out of the medium specific and to thinking, what are your component parts of any artwork and so how are you going to use your different resources? And so the camera can be objectifying and it can leave the silent people off the screen... then film does reiterate what happens in... The things we don't or feel outdated about some of Shakespeare's stagecraft, which of course were done for a different acting model without actresses. So there are all sorts of reasons to understand what Shakespeare was doing in his time, and then to think in our time, so different, we need to call attention and use resources, be they have the screen, the stage or the text to call out possibilities for now.

Varsha:

And before we finish, I do want to ask you one last question and it's one about sites specificity. So we've talked about mediums specificity, but what about site specificity? And I'm asking you this because in 2016 you were involved in filming a site-specific theatrical production of the 'Merchant of Venice' by Compagnia de' Colombari in a Venetian ghetto. And I want to talk about projects like these just generally. So be it 'Hamlet' in Denmark or any play at Shakespeare's globe in London, because projects such as these sometimes lead people into thinking that perhaps Shakespeare can only be understood in London or that being in Denmark and seeing the play will unlock 'Hamlet' or Cyprus' Othello's Island and the best place to study the place. So I feel very uneasy about the ideas of ownership of a particular play or of Shakespeare that are advanced with these kinds of projects. So what were your feelings about being involved in a project that seemed to say, at least on the surface, that this particular site of a Venetian ghetto is the Merchant of Venice's proper home, if you like?

Diana:

Yes. I think I liked it because it did not try to do that kind of move, which in my mind maybe, because I'm in MIT, we're in four dimensional space time and that is a term I use a good deal these days to remind people, you are never in the same place as Shakespeare. And by the way, those are fictional characters. They were never in that place. And so to keep the layers, both of temporal, geographical and artistic difference in view, when we talk about these things, is very important to avoid the kind of trap of thinking we are the only authentic version. In the case of The Merchant in the Venetian Ghetto, this production was done with full consciousness that there was never a Shylock in the ghetto, but that the consequences of associating Shylock and Judaism and that ghetto have been 400 years of pain and difficulty and sometimes in the ghetto itself, creative rebellion or collaboration in a sense within limited agency by those who have been cast as outsiders.

Diana:

So it knew. That production knew and the people producing it, Shaul Bassi, the lead said, the ghetto itself is a palimpsest. I think that's a lovely image and it gets at the question of layers. Layers of history and layers of functionality and fact intermingling and so it's complex. It's not simple. And I hope that's what people in other places do as well, sometimes they do make these professions of this is the true home or the right place. I think that's less helpful and much better to see Shakespeare himself the way he was in his own time. Not some monument of authenticity, but remaking for his own moment. And where are we making places like the Globe theater space for this moment. It's not going back to exactly how it was done then, it can't be. And if it were done the way it was done then, we would not like it. We would not speak to us.

Diana:

I would just add one more point. Even that production in the ghetto was brought back to the States by the director, Karin Coonrod and done at other places and we went and filmed those precisely to show that even if it starts in one place with a certain set of local associations, when you move it somewhere else, you can find new ones. So she moved to issues of Race in America when she came back away a little bit from the very strong focus on the Shylocks, although plural Shylocks in her version, that was still there, but she added another layer to the new place. So she too was not trying to say this is the authentic Merchant.

Varsha:

Great. So we're back to Shake-shifting again, this time with location and more layerings. Thank you so much for the conversation today. It was fantastic. Thank you, Varsha, It's a delight to have been with you.

Diana:

That was Diana Henderson talking about Virginia Woolf Shake-shifting, Shakespeare films, site-specific performances and collaborative networks. Next month, we are excited to talk to Andrea Smith. She's someone who is as passionate about voice and sound as we are because she's researching Radio Shakespeares. So dear listeners adieu, adieu, adieu remember to tune in to 'Women & Shakespeare' streaming at Apple podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen to the podcast with full transcripts, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then keep smashing the patriarchy!