“All the world’s a stage” (no.8 in series)

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In the run-up to The Ninth World Shakespeare Congress in Prague I posted a selection of blogs from grant winners looking forward to that event. Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a selection of blogs from some  more of those grant winners, giving a taste of the papers they presented at the conference.  This week’s contribution comes from Jennifer R. McDermott, who is coming towards completing her PhD at the University of Toronto, Canada.

In act three, scene two of As You Like It, Rosalind avows: “Time travels in divers paces with divers persons. I’ll tell you who Time ambles withal, who Time trots withal, who Time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.” Her words on the subjective variability of time perception certainly ring true when I reflect back on the galloping pace of my own travels in Prague for the ISA’s 9th World Shakespeare Congress. Given the richness of the academic programme – featuring plenary addresses by leading scholars, intriguing group seminar discussions, and concurrent panels on field-defining questions of critical methodology – alongside the many organised excursions and, of course, the beauty of the city itself with its towering castles, Vltava river boat tours, and artistic attractions, I soon found myself in the enviable position of trying to do more than was possible in the hours of each day.

This congress marked both my first voyage to the Czech Republic and my first opportunity to participate as a seminar member in the International Shakespeare Association. While I have always enjoyed my North American conference engagements, such as the MLA, RSA, and SAA, the ISA provided an exciting new means of entry into a larger European and, indeed, global academic community. Thanks to the generosity of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I was able to share ideas not only with colleagues from America, Canada, and England at this congress, but further with experts from Australia, China, France, Greece, India, and Israel among other places. The ISA possesses its own unique niche as truly the most international forum for the exchange of ideas on Shakespeare as a world-wide resource.

As a final year PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, my research centres on the five senses in Shakespeare.  I examine the history of the body and the relationship between sensory perception and theatrical reception in particular, and so it is no surprise that the stand-out panels for me were those that most closely interrogated the overlap between physical and psychical response.  I am thinking here of the wonderful “Body-Mind” seminar headed up by Laurence Johnson and John Sutton, which raised questions about the nature of embodiment in the Elizabethan theatre as well as role of the mind in material culture, and the lively “Culinary Shakespeare” group led by Amy L. Tigner and Peter Parolin. My ISA paper, “A Taste for the Exotic: The Gustatory Experience of Theatre in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra,” likewise engaged with questions of food and its consumption in Shakespeare’s plays; however, I participated in Roslyn Knuston and Per Sivefors’ Seminar on “Expectations, Experience, and Experimentation” in order to extend my considerations into the role of audience response.

My publications to date have dealt with hearing and seeing in Shakespeare (EMLS 19.1 and Religion and the Senses on “Sermonizing the Open Ear”), but my larger project entitled “Shakespeare in Another Sense” equally brings taste, smell, and touch to bear on theatrical experience. In this dissertation, I survey early modern anatomical, legal, poetic, and religious primary documents because I seek to determine how the sensory ideologies and epistemologies latent in Shakespeare’s plays coincide with – or exhibit tension against – the prevailing understanding of the senses at the time. I explore the ways in which Shakespeare’s language generates physical feeling and, concomitantly, how that feeling colours theatrical meaning as intuited sensation.  My work engages with Bruce Smith’s concept of historical phenomenology, and so I was especially curious to hear his take on Presentism versus Historicism in the “Presence of the Past” panel.

All in all, this was a conference that celebrated a shared love of Shakespeare, and it was one whose conversations I hope to remember – like Rosalind – in my future travels for a long time.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (along with Charles University, Prague, and The International Shakespeare Association) sponsored individuals from Argentina, Romania, Hungary, India, Russia, Canada, Poland, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, and Chile to attend the World Shakespeare Congress 2011.  Make sure that you follow this series to hear from more of our award winners  who will be talking about the ways in which Shakespeare is a subject for research, performance, and conversation across the globe.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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