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Q & A with the academic staff of the Department of English

To properly celebrate all the anniversaries of the present year, the ENgLIST team took their chance and asked the professors at the Department of English if they were willing to answer a few questions on William Shakespeare’s prolific life, Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, and the beloved legacies of Roald Dahl and Beatrix Potter. Given the preposterous workload they are facing, we should count our lucky stars for receiving such generous responses. 

Which of William Shakespeare’s works do you find the most exciting to research, simply ponder on, or is your personal favourite?

King Lear is a stunning play simply because of its absolute grimness and the inevitability of the plot – from the absurdly theatrical beginning in which Lear demands professions of love from his three daughters, to the heartbreaking conclusion in which Lear’s heart bursts “smilingly” (if I remember correctly), deceived for an instant about Cordelia’s survival.
What hits me every day, however, are lines like “flies to wanton boys…” or “reason not the need” or Cordelia’s foolishly honest “nothing” at the start.
 It’s one of the few Shakespeare plays I’ve seen staged a few times. Once with Christopher Plummer (brilliant, etc.), and once in a painfully memorable instance of German Regietheater. There were three Cordelias and, for some reason, a toilet placed centre stage. There was also full-throated hollering of “You are a fucking football player!” for “base football player.” To be clear, the second insult is in the play; the first is not. Of such transgressions is Bardolatry born!

Jason Blake,PhD

My personal favourite William Shakespeare’s work is Romeo and Juliet, because the story of the star-crossed lovers is relevant in every society and culture. Parallels can be found in everyday situations. The brain of a teenager works differently from that of a mature adult. This is reflected in Romeo and Juliet’s spontaneous (over)reactions, extreme measures, relentless and passionate nature. As a mother of teenagers I am often reminded of that. 

Lara Burazer, PhD 

While there is a lot about Shakespeare’s work that I love, a particular treasure trove I like to explore would be his history plays. It’s always a revelation to find out more about a particular period in English history, especially because the text is interspersed with Shakespeare’s witty and insightful comments on life in general. The most recent of these discoveries has been Henry V, which also includes a hilarious scene with a French princess learning English. 

Monika Kavalir, PhD

“Sonnet 129” on all accounts. Research-wise it is exciting to compare the differences between the original Quarto version and the edited edition (in which the punctuation is significantly altered, and which, for some reason, appears in 99% of anthologies). The underlying point of the original is actually in direct opposition to the message of the edited version. The original version is much more open-ended and complex, and it provides loads of material to ponder on (for example, considering lust as something that is before a joy proposed behind a dream, instead of something that in prospect is a joy proposed, and in retrospect a dream). My ponderings on the sonnet also made it my personal favourite. I also like “Sonnet 116.” I’m not really a fan of his plays, but I do have a soft spot for Macbeth

Mojca Krevel, PhD 

My favourite play by William Shakespeare is King Lear. I admire the artistic way in which the playwright confirms the old wisdom that appearances are deceptive, and makes the reader/theatregoer arrive at the seemingly paradoxical realisation that a “mad” person may be capable of a deeper insight than a “sane” one: the “madder” King Lear becomes, the more he understands his circumstances and human nature at large. He as a human being develops to such an extent that he has been one of my favourite literary characters since I was a second-year student of English. 

Cvetka Sokolov, PhD 

There is no simple answer to this question. Odd as it may seem, I do not have a personal favourite among Shakespeare’s plays, but I have a few which I find interesting and I enjoy watching. These are: Macbeth, Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Although Othello and Julius Cesar are not my favourites, they have protagonists (Iago, Brutus, Mark Anthony, for example) whose persuasive and manipulative language skills offer excellent material for linguistic analysis.

Smiljana Komar, PhD

I must admit that Shakespeare has never been one of those authors that I would go back to for guidance or comfort in time of distress. If I had to, I would definitely choose the sonnets over the plays, among those maybe “Sonnet 66.” That is as far as “food for soul” is concerned. But there is no end to my admiration of Shakespeare’s mastery of the language. He wrote at the time when English had been enriched with more than 10,000 new words, when the old grammatical structures were still holding ground, but slowly giving way to the new ones. He embraced it all, the old and the new, and played with the language like with a musical instrument, and contributed enormously to its uniqueness by inventing new words and new phrases. A bottomless source of “food” for any diachronic linguist.

Franciska Trobevsek Drobnak, PhD

It’s difficult to choose a favourite when it comes to Shakespeare. Two of his plays that I’ve always enjoyed are Macbeth and King Lear. And since Shakespeare’s work is almost synonymous with the theatre, I also want to mention a few theatre productions that have stayed with me throughout the years: King Lear (1992, SNG Drama/CD), Hamlet (1994, SNG Drama), Macbeth po Shakespearu (2009, Mini teater Ljubljana/CD), and Antony and Cleopatra (2014, The Globe).

Andrej Stopar, PhD 

I’ve always had a soft spot for Macbeth, probably because both the plot and the characters are so wonderfully complex. It is such a fantastically twisted, dark, chaotic, intense and tragic piece that one can read again and again, its many ambiguities and general liminality providing ample food for thought every single time.

Anamarija Sporcic 

What is the contribution of Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl to children’s and young adult literature? Which one of their works is worth pointing out as most important or influential and why?

I love children’s and young adult literature, reading a lot of it. However, I’m no expert researching that branch of literature so it would be difficult for me to evaluate Beatrix Potter and Roald Dahl’s contribution to it in theoretical terms. What I can share, tough, is my personal response to their work as a reader.
I find Beatrix Potter’s stories sweet and witty at the same time, and feel that her gentle illustrations complement them really well – the narrator tells her stories factually at times whereas the illustrations accompanying them reveal emotion (fear discernible from a frightened rabbit’s “face” in “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” for example). I enjoy Potter’s irony and sense of humour, too. What did Mother Rabbit say to her children to warn them against entering Mr McGregor’s garden?
“‘Now my dears,’ said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, ‘you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.’”
What did Mr McGregor do with Peter Rabbit’s jacket and shoes? “Mr. McGregor hung up the little jacket and the shoes for a scare-crow to frighten the blackbirds.”
 What I admire most about Potter’s writing, tough, is the absence of finger-shaking moralising in spite of the lessons to be learned from it. Peter Rabbit does learn the hard way that trespassing people’s gardens is dangerous but not doing what one is told by one’s parents is an essential part of exploring the world, of growing up, of becoming independent. Mother Rabbit seems to be aware of that: it is not because of being punished that Peter Rabbit gets put to bed without supper at the end of the story; it’s just that he feels sick after having eaten Mr McGregor’s yummy vegetables to excess. Another unobtrusive lesson to be learnt.

Admittedly, Roald Dahl’s work is not exactly my cup of tea. He is humorous and his characters do get a chance to overcome obstacles, frequently standing up to cruel adults in the process, and he does break taboos (an entire chapter on wizpopping in The BFG, mind you!) but I find his humour exaggerated and grotesque for most of the time. In addition, not all kids in his novels make it – in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory four of them get eliminated from the scene in rather painful and humiliating ways such as one of them falling into a hot chocolate river and getting sucked up by a pipe. What’s funny about that?? 

Another one of his novels which I really dislike is Danny, the Champion of the World, in which Danny’s father does illegal things, blaming it all on the unfairness of the British class-ridden society. To take revenge on a nasty and nastily rich bloke, he and Danny drug over a hundred of pheasants to be able to hide them before a pheasant-shooting party begins – any animal rights activists around? 

To finish on a more positive note, I do like Dahl’s The BFG and also the (hilarious) Revolting Rhymes

Cvetka Sokolov, PhD 

From your personal experience, how do the citizens of Canada/UK/Republic of Ireland feel about Queen Elizabeth II and her symbolic representation of imperialism, or do they see her as a uniting figure?

The Queen is far enough away to be greeted with bemusement by most Canadians. Her portrait on Canadian money was a fine and illustrative emblem of this mollifying distance from the centre. The Queen, who was over seventy when the old portrait was finally replaced, looked about twenty-five on the nickels and dimes and quarters. It was as if some sort of financial formaldehyde or even pickling had taken place.

The first time I was in the UK, it surprised me to see that their money-queen looked different – that is, I was surprised that the Queen’s image was closer to the flesh-and-blood reality. That lesser pictorial distortion makes sense, given that she’s more of a presence in London, England, than in London, Ontario. Royalty, bloodlines and nobility has a comic ring to it in Canada. A few years ago, some family line in England had thinned out to the point that a Canadian farmer – somehow related to what used to be a noble family – found himself in the House of Lords. There was a front-page picture of the guy in the Toronto Star, up to his knees in manure (though protected by Wellingtons), with a headline reading something like, “The Lastest Proud Member of the House of Lords.” Ask anyone over a certain age what the House of Lords is and you’ll get a quick response: where metalheads get their hair cut. The point? Though the Monarchy is still linked to Canada in political terms, the local frizeraj is closer to our lived reality.

Jason Blake, PhD

Citizens of the UK generally respect and also admire the Queen. They see her as an institution and an important source of tourism revenue. She appears to have earned the respect of the people with her approach to ruling, her diligence and her role during WW2, and even though the number of people in favour of abolishing the monarchy is increasing, a staggering number of UK citizens would like to keep things as they are. Tradition is an important part of British culture and that is also reflected in how the Queen is perceived by the majority – as one of the few reliable constants in these volatile times. Were Her Majesty not so popular with her subjects, arguments against the monarchy (such as the fact that hereditary privilege of this kind should be seen as absurd in this day and age) would probably be brought up more frequently. The Irish, for obvious historical reasons, do not feel the same kind of respect and are more likely to see her as a remnant of a bygone era. 

Anamarija Sporcic 

Do you feel comfortable speculating about the future of the Queen’s successors? Will the monarchy continue?

The republican movement in Britain does plan to campaign for a referendum on the future of the British monarchy after Elizabeth’s death, but I do not think they are likely to succeed. The British monarchy is too strong an institution to be done away with overnight, but we are certainly going to see some changes. The younger generations of royals are expected to rule in a somewhat less ostentatious manner, although the insistence on everything being much more “regal” than anywhere else in Europe is what people seem to find appealing. The public opinion does, however, strongly favour William over Charles as Elizabeth’s successor, so we are going to have to wait and see what happens.

Anamarija Sporcic

Visiting voice

As a special treat we were able to pick the insightful brain of Robin Bates, a professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, on the subject of Shakespeare, his works and his influence. As someone who has continuously drawn inspiration and solace from literature throughout his life and now believes it to be his privilege to be able to lead students towards the same source of life-changing wisdom, we thought him a perfect fit to share with you some of his thoughts. 

Reports have it that the love of Shakespeare is worldwide so that one can’t generalise about how anyone responds to him. The variety of his characters, the power of his poetry, the depth of his exploration, all combine to find fans everywhere. I’m sending along something I wrote on my blog a few years back that explains my love of Twelfth Night. Feel free to excerpt from it as you will. I’ll just add here that the play anticipates the LGBTQ movement – the acknowledgement that there is far more gender diversity in humankind that the authorities acknowledge. Or as biologist Milt Diamond of the University of Hawaii puts it, “biology loves diversity, society hates it.” I have seen lesbian students thrill to Viola’s “I would build a willow cabin” speech and gay students recognise painfully the scene where Antonio is denied by (so he thinks) Sebastian. Although Billy Chrystal in When Harry Met Sally says that men and women can never be friends, there is indeed such a friendship in Orsino and Cesario’s relationship. (Some women love that scene because sex doesn’t get in the way.) I guess what I’m saying is that Shakespeare understood gender identity far deeper than the authorities of his time did (no surprise there!) and portrayed it for us. And now, slowly, are certain societies beginning to acknowledge this. Although we’re not there yet.

Shakespeare, to be sure, had to hide his observations in a comedy. We can recognise and laugh before we are returned safely to heteronormativity and “the wind and the rain.” But for a brief instant we are able to see other possibilities. 

Here’s what I wrote: 

When I was a child, I was fascinated by works containing characters of ambiguous gender. Specifically, I was drawn to images of boys who either looked like girls or who were, unbeknownst to them, actually girls. I was also drawn to images of girls (and women) who passed themselves off as guys. The prevailing culture of southern Tennessee did not admit of such ambiguity, which meant that such fictions were critically important. 

I fell in love with Twelfth Night when I was a seventh-grader. Seventh grade is a tough time for most people and it was particularly tough for me because I had mononucleosis, perhaps caused by stress from the public school battles over racial integration (the year was 1962). The world seemed harsh and I felt I had been given an immense gift when I was confined to bed for a month. I buried myself in books and in some recordings of Shakespeare plays that my father brought home from the University of the South, the college where he taught. 

Twelfth Night was my favorite and I listened to it over and over. The scenes that I liked the best were the duels involving first Viola and then her identical twin Sebastian. Not knowing that the other is alive, first Viola and then Sebastian are challenged by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Needless to say, Viola is out of her depth. Luckily, she is rescued by Sebastian’s friend Antonio (who thinks she’s Sebastian). In the second duel scene, Toby and Andrew set upon Sebastian, mistaking him for Viola/Cesario. He is rescued by the Lady Olivia (not that he needs rescuing). When Andrew and Toby set upon Sebastian one last time, he beats them both soundly. 

I’ve thought a lot about why I liked these particular scenes and here’s what I’ve come up with. I was a gentle and sensitive boy who shrank from rough and tumble boys’ play. I certainly had no interest in playing football, one of the state’s religions. I remember thinking around that time that somewhere a mistake had been made and that I was actually a girl in a boy’s body. I remember riding my bicycle and imagining the wind streaming through my long hair, even though, like most boys in 1973, my hair was cut very short. 

As far as I know, I was not (and am not) gay. But I did idealize what I imagined to be the sweetness and gentleness of girls (I had no sisters to disabuse me of such a stereotype), and I did not act like a “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails” boy. One of the older women teachers at the school at one point called me a sissy. 

Back to Twelfth Night. In Viola being confronted by bullies, I saw myself, outwardly male but inwardly female. She’s supposed to know how to duel, given her gender, but doesn’t have a clue how. And then, when Sebastian routes Toby and Andrew, I relished the fantasy of vanquishing those who (as the comic book ads for weights envisioned it) were kicking sand in my face. The play, in other words, first articulated my predicament and then gave me a satisfying, wish-fulfilling conclusion. 

One sees from this example just how malleable literary symbols are — a sensitive boy sees himself in a cross-dressing woman. The play is remarkable in that it provides other points of identification in addition to this one. Its subtitle is “What You Will,” and the play is magical in the way that it allows readers and spectators a range of fantasies as they interact with it.

Robin Bates, PhD

Adapted for the website from the original piece, which was published in Issue XV in June 2016.

Illustration by Romana Tesovnik.