Tristan Reynolds ’19 in conversation with Dr. Bethany Packard about her focus on the early modern period of English literature.
SPEAKER: Welcome to another Campus Conversation– Discussions with Transylvania University Faculty, highlighting their interest, passions, and pursuits. Here is Tristan Reynolds.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: I’m here with Dr. Bethany Packard who is an English professor here at Transy, focusing on the early modern period of English language literature. What is that, exactly?
BETHANY PACKARD: The early modern period and what people consider it to be can vary depending on your discipline. As I’ve, for example, if I were in French literature or history, I might extend the time period a little later. So in English literature, the early modern has come to be the standard term that’s used often for 16th and 17th century literature. It’s sort of become the replacement for the Renaissance. So before I entered graduate school, in the past, the more common term– and a term that’s still used quite a lot interchangeably with early modern– is Renaissance when you’re talking about the English Renaissance.
Of course, the people who work on Italian and even some northern European folks might differ with that. But over time, that term has shifted. But if I were working in, like I said, something like French literature, I might extend that into the 18th century or I might extend it a little bit earlier. So it’s kind of a fuzzy term that’s generally used for that 16th, 17th century period. And if we’re talking about England, we’re talking about the English Renaissance.
So we are very appropriately talking about Shakespeare, since this is his birthday week. Happy birthday slash death day week, Shakespeare.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: I wanted to ask you about that, actually. Do you feel that in studying the early modern stuff, and the English stuff in particular, you can get pigeonholed as the Shakespeare people.
BETHANY PACKARD: Yes, and in some ways that’s great, because that’s the big name. So to explain to people what I study, the time period I study, I can pull Shakespeare out of my hat, and people have an understanding of what I’m talking about. And I genuinely do love and enjoy teaching, love reading, and seeing, and studying. But there are lots of other people who were writing at the same time period. So I do really enjoy opportunities to teach classes and talk to people about some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and to encourage us to think about him not as this grand– OK, the man was genius– but this grand giant who is just popping, sort of miraculously formed out of English literature and, now he’s a bust in libraries, but that he was surrounded by lots and lots of other writers in drama, but also lots of other genres.
And to sort of contextualize him and talk about him in context with other people is a really fun thing and something that I strive to do.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: What was the context Shakespeare was operating in?
BETHANY PACKARD: So the theater scene that Shakespeare stepped into as an actor, and ultimately as a dramatist, was this incredibly amazing, vibrant, relatively new thing. And I’m not saying that drama had not existed in England and indeed in Europe for a very long time. But the idea of having settled theaters with a resident companies was really not that old. And theaters were popping up in lots of different places, the actual– theater called The Theater, The Rose, The Curtain, all these different places, and some indoor theaters as well, depending. And all of these amazing writers producing because such a huge percentage of the population of London is going to see plays.
And the way that it worked was not– you’re going to have a play in rep, and it’s going to run for a certain period of time, and then we’ll be rehearsing a new play, and then we’ll transition to that the way that you generally see now. Instead, this is basically the equivalent of going to the movies. So you’ve got all of these plays in these different theaters transitioning. So one day, it’s one thing. One day, it’s another.
And so all of these actors have to maintain– they have to have killer memories to be able to go from one performance to the next. They’ll be rehearsing one play in the morning, performing another play in the afternoon, and then they’ll do something different the next day. And you have to have volume in terms of number of plays. So actually, like I said, there are many, many wonderful playwrights who are contemporaries of Shakespeare. But there are also lots of plays that are anonymous, and there are lots of plays that we just don’t have anymore, but we know this volume existed.
And then you’ve got these audiences who are interacting with the actors, who are going back and forth. It still wasn’t a super reputable thing to be, to be a playwright and an actor. And you also certainly wouldn’t be expecting to make your fortune as an actor, certainly not as a playwright. As soon as you have sold that play to the acting company, you’re done. That’s the amount of money that you get.
So the idea that that’s going to make your fortune, and it’s probably one of the reasons why a lot of guys were super, super prolific, writing tons of things. And you also often, and Shakespeare did, you’d write collaboratively. So you’d have multiple people trying to– again, I know that comparing it to movies is sort of a simplified comparison, but it really works, because how many screenwriters’ names do we know? And how many screenwriters are on an individual movie? That kind of thing kind of gives us a sense of– and just how many films are out, generally?
That kind of really big, busy, lots of people coming to see you, lots of interaction with your audience, lots of innovation happening stylistically and generically, and that’s the world that he was stepping into.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Describing this sort of chaotic, colorful, very lively world, late 16th century, early 17th century theater, do you find that you can get a sense of that from reading just Shakespeare’s text 400 years later?
BETHANY PACKARD: The thing is, I know logically that I probably can’t, because I have a very modern brain, and the way that I think about the material is necessarily influenced by all the centuries in between, by my life, by all the things that people have thought about Shakespeare in that world, and all of the film, and play, and novelizations of it. So logically, I know that I’m probably not developing a really accurate picture. But nonetheless, I do feel, I think– although there there’s this sort of saying, and I don’t want to counter it entirely, that Shakespeare is for all time Ben Jonson writing a poem to Shakespeare in the first folio and this idea that we sort of have his work, that it’s timeless. And I do think it can be.
It’s valuable that we continue to read it, that we continue to perform it, and interpret it. But nonetheless, there are things in Shakespeare’s plays and poetry that are so of their moment that we need tons of footnotes now to understand. So you both have all of this vibrant language, but you also have– I heard this example recently, so I’m going to steal it. It was people talking about Hamilton, and they were talking about all of the references in Hamilton that are current to us today, that if this continues to be performed in the future, we’ll either get cut, which is what can sometimes happen to these very of-the-moment references in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, or they’re going to need footnotes, or they’re going to have to make big, physical gestures. The actors are going to need to figure out how to convey it to you. But I think that both in the sort of little, tiny details like that that might be confusing to me, or were originally confusing to me, and I’d need to check a footnote.
Things like, for example, in “Hamlet”, there is a moment where– so Hamlet is really excited because a theatrical troupe from the city that he really enjoys has come. And this is really fun for people to both watch as audience members, and it’s fun for Shakespeare scholars, because we like the idea that look, Shakespeare is fictionalizing his world. Look, he’s fictionalizing actors, here are actors on stage. And the reason that this acting company that Hamlet loves is touring is that companies of child actors have become really popular in town.
And so they had to travel, and it’s a really quick reference. And it generally gets cut, but it really is referencing things that were going on at the time. There were all boy acting companies who were performing in expensive, pricier indoor theaters. And they were trendy and cool, and it kind of blows our minds to think of that. But there are little references like that that are– yeah, even if we’re in Venice, or Vienna, or in London, this is where we are.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: But there is something sort of, I don’t want to say, timeless about his work, but certainly vital. There’s a certain life energy to it, isn’t there?
BETHANY PACKARD: Yeah, I think this is why we keep performing, and re-performing and re-editing them. And I think it’s very important not to get too purist about it. It’s OK if they get edited, and changed, and we change the order of scenes, and we cut things, and we put it in a different time period, because they’re intended to be performed. And one of the things that keeps them vital– I mean, I certainly think that there are these big, huge issues that these plays are dealing with in language. It is so gorgeous that I’m biased, I’m always going to be biased. But in some cases, I will defy people to say, has anyone ever dealt with this issue in a way that is more gorgeous or more complicated?
But you have to keep re-envisioning and reworking. And I think one of the things that is timeless about the material is that it enables that kind of re-imagining. And maybe this is both related to Shakespeare being crazy genius, but also the world that he’s writing into and the kind of theater that he’s producing, he’s not putting in a huge ton of stage directions. The language is so important, because these guys who are performing– and just for reference just in case, and I know most people know this, but they are all men, and sometimes boys, all male actors. They don’t have tons of time to rehearse, they don’t have the kind of time that the contemporary actors have to think about, what’s my motivation here, how are we going to block this, what are we going to do?
The language often will give you the stage directions, it will give you so much. The language always works. If you say the language out loud, it helps you figure out, it’s these character thinking out loud, it helps them figure out what to do physically. And so you don’t need all these stage directions. You are working on, originally, roughly a blank stage.
You don’t need all these props maybe in ways that are different from as theater started to change, and other factors came in came into play, and the language wasn’t everything in quite such a big way. Maybe that’s why that stuff is less likely to live in other contexts. But you can pick up Shakespeare’s language and put it in lots of different contexts, put it in lots of different places, and it’ll still give you the emotional meat.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Was there ever a point at which you weren’t crazy about Shakespeare?
BETHANY PACKARD: Oh, yeah. I can sit here and say this language is so beautiful, and I think it is. And if you give me a shot, I think I can convince most people. I’m going to give it my best shot. But because we no longer are exposed to– just think about the things that we, the genres of media that we take in almost without thinking today when we watch TV or movies and the kinds of cutting that takes place, and the way that sound cues and kinds of shots give us the information– oh, this is happening at the same time, this is in one place, this is in another, the way that sound works with visuals so that we understand particular shorthands.
All of that is stuff that we have learned almost by osmosis, by exposure. And we haven’t had the same kind of exposure to the kind of, sometimes it’s [INAUDIBLE] first, sometimes it’s a iambic pentameter, sometimes it’s prose. But that kind of language and drama, we’re also dealing with language that is not only old in terms of old fashioned, and maybe the words are being used in slightly different ways. This was also pre a lot of the grammar rules that we know, adhere to. And so that’s different, the way that we listen is different.
So when you first get exposed to Shakespeare, it’s going to feel fish-out-of-water like, because this is the first time that you’ve heard any of that. And so for somebody like me, who has read it and listened to it for a long time, it’s a lot easier. And it’s actually really important for me to continue to work with students who don’t have that kind of familiarity. It’s good for me to be reminded of that kind of foreign feeling, and it enables me to go back and look at Shakespeare differently. So like a lot of people, I had to read Shakespeare in high school.
And I don’t remember disliking it strongly. I had a much more difficult relationship, for example, with Billy Budd than I had with any Shakespeare. But I remember that I had to– I know that I read “Julius Caesar” one year. I don’t have strong memories of what it was like to read “Julius Caesar”. I just don’t think it made an impression. It was fine, whatever. I remember the more that I got into literature, the more I had this sense, and I think a lot of people also have this, that Shakespeare was important, and so I should put more of an effort into reading Shakespeare.
So I have somewhat stronger memories of having to read “Romeo and Juliet”, I have definitely stronger memories of how I felt about and sort of enjoying our class discussions about “Lear”. My senior year, the big play that we did was “Lear”. So the more comfortable I got with it, and I also sort of made myself read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because I was going to go see a movie version of it. There’s that late ’90s Michael Hoffman version with Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline in it.
And I was going to go see it. And so I am the kind of person who reads the book before they see the movies. And I was like that even in high school. I am that person. And the more comfortable I got, the less foreign it felt and the more I enjoyed it. But I still don’t think that I was really into it at that age. I still think I was doing it sort of out of a sense of– but Shakespeare is important, and I like books.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Was there a moment for you when you were reading it and it clicked?
BETHANY PACKARD: Yeah, I had some really great experiences in college. I very vividly remember the first time I had to read a history play, which I had been deliberately avoiding. At that point, I was going to college, I was going to be an English and political science double major. And so I had read a few more Shakespeare plays kind of on my own because I thought I should. I also made myself read “Ulysses”. These are things that I did.
So I remember very vividly the first time that I had to read a history play for an English class. We read “Henry IV, Part 1”, which, if people are not familiar, is the introduction, the birth of Falstaff among other things, and I loved that. And then I took my Shakespeare class for English majors. I was at an institution that was larger than Transylvania, so it was a sort of small lecture. It wasn’t a huge, huge number of students. But it was much larger than the size of class that we would normally have here.
And my professor was Dr. Joseph Lowenstein, and I loved it. I remember once we had a power outage. And I remember going into the hallway because there were safety lights. And it was my sophomore year, we were in a suite. So I left our rooms and our little lobby, and went and sat in the hallway with my– really, I thought of it as my Shakespeare Bible, because the pages were, it had that oniony thin, I still have this book. I don’t remember a play I was reading, but I remember sitting in that hallway, and I was going to finish the play. I did not care.
There was a storm, there was power, some alarm had gone off at some point. But I was just sitting there where there was light reading. And I was able to. Even though there were all these distractions and all these things, I was enough into the language that I could do it, and I did. And I think that was the point where I was like, OK, I’ve got this, and I’m actually enjoying this, this is great.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Do you, or even are you capable of just sitting down and sort of reading it like a quick YA novel?
BETHANY PACKARD: Not like a quick YA novel, probably. But then again, I’m a really fast reader. And my ability to burn through a YA novel, I can do that pretty fast. Not to be vain, but I read problematically fast sometimes. And I don’t read Shakespeare like that. I am capable– and I will even do the thing of if I’m going to go see a show and I don’t have a firm memory of the play, or even if I’ve never read the play– I remember, this was years ago now, but I was going to get an opportunity to see a production of “The Witch of Edmonton”, which I had never even read. It’s not a Shakespeare play.
And I knew of it and had never read it. And what I did was sit down and read it because I wanted to know what was going to happen. And also I decided that I was going to write a review of it for a publication. And I’d sort of written out and said, hey, I’m going to see this really cool production of “The Witch of Edmonton”, do you want me to write a review? And they’d said, yes.
And I thought, I can’t go into this production not knowing what I’m looking for. Otherwise, in other circumstances, I was at a very cool theater called The Red Bull Theater in New York, and I always feel like I need to clarify that it’s called that because in London in the 16th, 17th century, there was a theater called The Red Bull. It has nothing to do with the energy drink. The little theater in New York has nothing to do with the energy drink, it’s named after The Red Bull in London back in the day, because it would have a red bull on the sign outside, and that’s how you– anyway, and that’s just the example that comes to mind. But I can, and I do, or if I’m going to go to a conference, I went to a conference a couple of weeks ago called The Shakespeare Association of America Annual Conference.
It’s fabulous, I love it so much. This year I was doing an “All’s Well That Ends Well” session, so I didn’t need to go and read an additional play. But sometimes you’ll be doing sessions that are themed. And if you’re doing a session at SAA, they’ll do things called seminars where in addition to some very big panels, in order to give everybody more feedback, what they’ll do is have a themed seminar. And you will write your work for that seminar in advance along with a group of others that will be orchestrated by a colleague. And then you’ll read each other’s work, often write comments for each other, well in advance of the conference.
And then what you’ll do at the conference is have a conversation. And people genuinely do come and sit in the audience and listen to the seminarians talk about their papers, talk about the issue at hand. And sometimes it will be themed in such a way that people will be writing about different texts. I think last year someone in my session had written on “Timon of Athens”. “Timon of Athens” is not a play that I’m familiar with or have been able to get into very much. But I did, and I just thought, I just need to sit down and read “Timon of Athens”.
I wasn’t reading it to develop my own argument or think about how I would teach it, I just felt like I needed to be more comfortable with it in order to talk to this colleague about his work. So I will do that in circumstances like that. I have to admit, and maybe this is just because I’m busy, that it’s pretty rare that I’m just going to sit down and say, I feel like reading “The Winter’s Tale”, because I love– “The Winter’s Tale” is amazing and I love it. But it’s going to be very unusual that I will feel like I have time to sit down and say, yeah, I’m going to read “The Winter’s Tale” just because I want to today.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Let’s end on this, what are you reading right now?
BETHANY PACKARD: So right now I am working on revisions of a chapter that’s going to go into a larger volume that’s bringing together childhood studies and queer theory, which is much, much like sort of feminist theory or angles. So I’m for that, I’m not writing about Shakespeare. I’m writing about a John Webster play called “The White Devil”. And my particular scholarly interest is often ideas of childhood and representations of child characters. So my sort of non-casual reading right now is me rereading “The White Devil” and reading the things for that piece that I need to because I have a deadline in about a week.
And so I’m working on revisions for that. And I guess for fun, what am I reading right now? It wasn’t this year, was it last year? Was it this year? No, it was this year, I’m so sorry, that the August term novel was “Station Eleven”. And I got myself a copy of it as the first-years were coming in, as I usually do.
And I just didn’t get it read. So I have now finished reading it. It’s good. It has Shakespeare in it, the central figures are a traveling performing orchestra slash Shakespeare acting troupe in a dystopian, vaguely post-apocalyptic world. It’s good. It sounds a little nuts, but it’s not, it’s very good. And it also makes me feel like I have great job security, because come the end of the world, there will still be Shakespeareans. So that’s good for me. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be flippant. It’s a good novel.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: That’s Dr. Bethany Packard, everybody.
BETHANY PACKARD: Thank you very much.
TRISTAN REYNOLDS: Thank you, and thank you for listening.
SPEAKER: You’ve been listening to another in our series, “Campus Conversations– Discussions with Transylvania University Faculty.”