Course, symposium examine impact of how Shakespeare's plays are performed

By April Hunt | Nov. 15, 2016

Story image
English professor Sheila Cavanagh, shown here speaking at an opening event for the First Folio exhibit, helps students examine the implications of different approaches to performing Shakespeare's plays.

In his time, Shakespeare’s plays were known for entertaining the masses, not as serious art. Today, students typically first read his work as literature, scouring the texts for universal themes. Interpreting Shakespeare for performance, and analyzing those choices, comes later. A lot can change in four centuries.

At Emory College, that effort at interpreting Shakespeare comes in English professor Sheila Cavanagh’s upper-level “Shakespeare Text and Performance” course. She has taught the class for years, but is especially eager to share the wide array of offerings during this year’s Shakespeare at Emory celebration.

“I want to broaden the Emory community’s understanding of the multiple ways Shakespeare can broaden our perspectives,” Cavanagh says. “I see performance as the prism where we are truly looking at all the different perspectives.”

This year, her students have even more opportunities to engage as the Emory community celebrates the Bard with campus-wide performances, exhibitions and panels that center on the First Folio.

The folio, the first collection edition of Shakespeare’s public plays, was published in 1623, just seven years after his death. The First Folio is on display at the Michael C. Carlos Museum through Dec. 11, the only site in Georgia for the exhibition that is touring the nation to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

“Seeing the text, we can start to ask what it tells us about the characters and what we are implying from it,” says Cavanagh, also director of the World Shakespeare Project.

For instance, in one of his timeless plays, Shakespeare reveals Hamlet is 30 (though common readings suggest he is a teen boy). The play does not give an age for his mother, Queen Gertrude.

Two popular movie interpretations came to unusual conclusions of the pair. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film portrayed Hamlet as 40 years old. Gertrude was played by Julie Christie, then 65.

But in a 1990 movie, Hamlet is played by Mel Gibson, three years younger than Gertrude, as played by Glenn Close.

“I’d never really thought about the differences in staging before this,” says Millie Johnson, a senior English major. “I think looking at the concrete details like that make all of us consider what is relevant, especially in issues we face today.”

Irish director Tom Magill recently spoke with Cavanagh’s class about his award-wining film adaption of “Macbeth,” filmed entirely inside the Maghaberry maximum-security prison in Belfast.

An ex-prisoner, Magill brought the themes of violence and its brutal repercussions to life by telling Macbeth’s story as “Mickey B,” using inmates as performers.

He also discussed his latest effort, an adaption of “The Tempest,” entitled “Prospero’s Prison.” The goal, he says, is to examine the themes of revenge and reconciliation as a way to discuss life in post-conflict Northern Ireland.

“I’m OK messing with the text as my script because I want to find new audiences for Shakespeare and that can mean adapting him in a way so we reach people today,” Magill says. “I’m using fictional text to tell true stories.”