This post was originally published in my Secret Diary of PhD Candidate column for The Shakespeare Standard.
Dearest Readers and Well-wishers,
Apologies for the long period of silence…let’s just say I’ve been gathering material to share with you. Although my enthusiasm still shines bright, I can’t tell stress how far it’s been put to the test these days: studying for my 8-hour Comprehensive Exam, piecing together a coherent (and, ideally, cogent) scholarship application, writing a paper that I could proudly deliver to the luminaries at Cambridge, and, well, a slew of events in my personal life (funny how it gets in the way sometimes!), that required my attention and emotional investment.
Yet, here I am, once again, sitting in an airport after an outstanding conference, feeling all warm and fuzzy inside for the friends I’ve made and the thoughts they’ve provoked. Two weeks ago, I sat in my office, resignedly acknowledging its function as an on-campus retreat for the occasional panic attack. — Trot off to England for a week when my ‘Comps’ studies aren’t even close to complete? When I can’t even articulate my proposed dissertation topic for a mandatory scholarship application, due in less than a month? And move apartments even sooner? — I knew I needed a vacation and kept reminding myself that it would be a working one, but somehow it felt like the most reckless and irresponsible thing to do when my nose was meant to be firmly affixed to the grindstone.
On my very first night, I attended closing night of The Bridge Project’s Richard III at The Old Vic. Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey did not disappoint. Spacey’s Richard reminded me of the character’s roots in the stock Machiavel figure, but the role took on modern relevance with undeniable parallels to the Libyan dictator who clings to power by the skin of his nails, Muammar Gaddafi.
The next day, on a specifically non-Shakespearean date for afternoon tea, my friend and I got lost in the labyrinth known as Kensington. We came upon the former home of T.S. Eliot. This prompted flashbacks to a particularly torturous study I undertook on the writer’s philosophy that Hamlet was an artistic “failure” in its lacking of the crucial objective correlative. Clearly, there is no escape from Shakespeare in London – you turn the corner and he’s always there in spirit!
I soon moved on to Cambridge, where I finally got to meet some colleagues from Open Shakespeare and the Open Knowledge Foundation. I had recently written an article for them about my experiences with Shakespeare and the Internet, and it was great to sit with the team in real-time and brainstorm innovative ways to bring Shakespeare’s texts to life online in an interactive way. It’s amazing how I spend so much time communicating with both my Open Shakespeare and Shakespeare Standard colleagues online, but it’s really so nice to meet the team in person. It was a fantastic experience, and one I hope to repeat soon!
Dragging my blistered feet back to my dormitory at St. Catherine’s College, I shivered in my drafty quarters and thought of scholarship student Christopher Marlowe, snuggling up to roommate Robert Thexton for warmth, and supposedly even some nocturnal enjoyment.
On Tuesday, the day of the conference, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Centre for Material Texts was overrun by Early Modernists. This led me to learn the invaluable lesson of, in the future, checking the conference program, not simply as I narcissistically had, for the joy of seeing my name in print amongst ‘pros’, but also to develop a better understanding of said pros’ research interests. A rookie error, I had assumed that the conference, “Eating Words: Text, Image, and Food” was geared to scholars across historical fields and faculties, but I ended up explaining humanist pedagogy to those who had indeed written the book on it. A valuable learning experience nonetheless, I was fortunate to have had it amidst such gracious, supportive hosts.
It was wonderful to spend a couple of days surrounded by fellow bibliophiles, and I even had the opportunity to attend an event at Plurabelle Books celebrating bibliophagy – the literal, rather than the commonly figurative, consumption of books. I managed to nibble on a tiny corner of a page, but I think I’ll stick to my personal vice, the casual sniffing of printed media.
When I returned to London, I took advantage of my close proximity to the British Library and visited the ‘Treasures’ at my beloved Ritblat Gallery. Aside from marveling over Jane Austen’s writing desk and reading specs (and indeed caving in and buying a Persuasion mug at the BL gift shop), I got a chance to stand inches away from several Renaissance quartos and, my personal favorite, Shakespeare’s First Folio. I must give credit to the curators of this exhibit, as they show Shakespeare’s works as not simply standing on a pedestal of the author’s own wit, but also as largely indebted to source texts and the works of his contemporaries, such as Marlowe and Ben Jonson.
That evening I met up with two of my favorite people in the world – fellow bardolators from my MA days, future Shakespearean heavy-hitters, otherwise known as my London Theatre Buddies. Quickly becoming tradition, we enjoyed our second biennial ‘Thai Food and Tempest’ night, heading to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to catch Trevor Nunn’s rendition of the play, starring Ralph Fiennes. While the use of an hourglass prop was a great way to remind us that The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s few plays to maintain Aristotle’s unities of time and space, the production was otherwise a disappointment. I jokingly defend Nunn by suggesting that he must have spent the show’s budget in paying for the principal actor, but I’m serious when I say that nothing was gained from the sparse set. This is especially disappointing because Nunn himself had proved that a deliberately austere mise en scène can be beneficial with his seminal production of Macbeth in 1979. I wish I could justify this production that seemed far too concerned with the smoke-and-mirrors use of harnesses to make Ariel fly, but really, this production added little to nothing to the vibrant legacy of this “rich and strange” play.
A much more memorable production was the Globe Theatre’s Dr. Faustus. This was the first time I’ve seen Faustus in performance and it genuinely contributed to my understanding of the play. It made me realize that Mephistopheles is a much more dynamic, but also sorrowful, character, and the Globe can always be relied upon to bring the bawdiness and vulgarity of Early Modern plays to life onstage, replete with plenty of [hopefully] fake urine. My favorite part of the play? The concluding jig in which the resurrected Faustus and Mephistopheles entertained the audience with a bout of ‘dueling lutes’.
And now I’m back at Heathrow, feet throbbing from such a busy week, but all the while feeling intellectually rejuvenated and incredibly blessed. Friends, both old and new, have given me exceptional food for thought (pun most definitely intended) for my scholarship applications, and the living, breathing, examples of Early Modern Drama that I’ve encountered have inspired me to get back to blogging and, more importantly, confront that grindstone head-on!
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!