Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shakespeare at the Olympics: Lots of Layers

While watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics last night, I was struck by the layers of meaning beneath Kenneth Branagh's reading of the "Isle is full of noises" speech. While the speech itself is a sterling example of English poetry, and is frequently excerpted as such, it loses a lot of meaning when it's stripped of its context. The original speaker is Caliban, in the Tempest--an enslaved servant, forced to do the bidding of his powerful master Prospero. Prospero has a history of manipulating his servants by affecting their humors--the fluids that are balanced in the body, and that govern both mood and personality. By altering the humors, Prospero can send inconvenient people (like his daughter, Miranda) temporarily to sleep. As part of the plotline, Caliban tries to turn the tables on Prospero. He encourages two rogues to try to kill the wizard while he's sleeping. In other words, sleep in the Tempest is pretty terrifying. Those high in the pecking order have to fear that they'll never wake up; their subordinates, meanwhile, experience sleep either as a method of escape, or as a terrifying, enforced state of inactivity. When Branagh reads these lines, then, there's a lot going on:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again (3.2.148-156).

Is Caliban actually experiencing Prospero's attempt to influence his humoral balance here? (Music was thought to alter a person's humors, and--from that perspective--the "noises" Caliban hears might actually be trying to manipulate his state of consciousness, forcing him indeed to "sleep again," if Prospero wishes it.) If so, this sleep is extremely dangerous, because it's externally induced, and essentially tortures a slave--taunting him with riches, so that he "cries" when he is forced to wake. Or, alternatively, is this sleep actually a state of escape, which Caliban can use to temporarily leave his enslaved status behind? Even if that's the case, it's also worth noticing that states of consciousness are being manipulated by external instruments and voices here, and the power dynamics of both colonialism and early modern humoral medicine are very much in play.

Knowing this background, to put these words in the mouth of a famous Shakespearean actor is one thing. To put them in the mouth of a famous Shakespearean actor dressed up as a Victorian business mogul (one galvanizing the Industrial Revolution, no less!) opens up a wide range of possible overtones, some of which clash a little with each other. A powerful man in top hat and tails, rejoicing as workers create smokestacks, sounds more like Prospero than Caliban--and the riches that he gained from his work were no doubt more material than illusory. In the context of last night's performance, then, Caliban's speech served a number of rhetorical functions: it represented the luxurious language of a national-treasure playwright, but it also carried traces of colonial interactions and medical discourse, which clashed and merged with the Victorian/Olympic/Branagh context in a jarring but interesting way. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Finding Community after Coursework

I took my prelims (the exams that many schools call comps) in Summer 2010. During my three-month study period, I figured that I was making a big transition: I was going from writing a few 20-page seminar papers per semester to writing one giant, whopping, massive document for a long long time. What I didn't realize, though, was that the circumstances of my writing would also change. When I wrote seminar papers, I interacted with groups of my peers (plus a set of professors) a few times a week. We had all read the same texts for each class meeting; then, we spent hours discussing them, situating them in context, and debating the published criticism. Looking back, it was a fabulous way to kickstart my writing process. I have notes in my textbooks about the viewpoints of ten or twelve really smart people, and those notes encapsulate vivid intellectual exchanges, in a community setting.

Now, there's been a shift in the way that I write, and also in the way that I perceive writing. Instead of reading a common text, and hearing ten or twelve opinions about it at once, the onus is on me: I select a text myself (one that has to do with sleeping people). I mine it for data, and find out what others have already written about it, and create some writing of my own. Then, I share that writing--but on an individual basis. I have a fabulous dissertation partner and a fabulous advisor, who both read my work at least twice a month, and who offer their reactions. I'm really lucky to have both of them, and the one-on-one feedback has taken my writing to a more thoughtful and polished level.

At the same time, I'm also starting to wonder about the possibility of group-based togetherness after the coursework stage of the PhD. It seems pretty difficult to imagine ten or twelve dissertators, postdocs or professors coming together fourteen times per semester to discuss fourteen books--it wouldn't be a streamlined use of time, for a start. Still, the classroom model is the foundation of our scholarship, and I'm not sure it's wise to jettison it entirely after reaching a certain stage of the PhD. Thoughts?

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Hi! I'm Nancy, and I'm a PhD candidate in Early Modern English literature at UW-Madison. I'm currently writing a dissertation about watching people sleep. (It sounds a little weird, until you realize how often sleep comes up in Renaissance Literature--in Macbeth alone, Duncan gets murdered in his sleep, Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, and Macbeth goes a little nuts from sleep deprivation.) By doing my research, I'm learning that community contexts are vital: community members protect vulnerable sleepers from nasty things like murder (well--unless you're Duncan, that is), and they cultivate an ethos of caring for other human beings in the process. Because my research is so community-focused, I thought it would be a logical step to join the larger online community of people conducting research in the early modern period, to find out about the latest exciting developments and learn more about  digital approaches to humanities work. I'm looking forward to getting started!