Last week, some 600 Shakespeare scholars came to Prague for the 9th World Shakespeare Congress, an international academic events that has previously been held in such cities as Brisbane, Berlin or Los Angeles. Among the guests was the Australian scholar Peter Holbrook, a member of the International Shakespeare Association’s Congress Committee and author of a book titled “Shakespeare’s Individualism.” In this interview, he speaks about his central thesis, Shakespeare research in different countries and what his experience at the congress has been like.
“It has been wonderful. The plenary sessions in particular have been fantastic. We have had speakers from all over the world, because this is an international Shakespeare congress, and being in Prague – what a joy. It’s just such an extraordinary place.”
Does a congress like this provide a lot of new and interesting insights even for a seasoned scholar like yourself?
“Absolutely. The thing about Shakespeare is that he isn’t – this is often said – isn’t really anymore, if he ever was, simply an English author. He is an author who has been taken up by so many different lands and peoples and cultures. This is a process that goes back a long, long time, so one of the things about this conference is that it brings people from all over the world to talk about Shakespeare in their own cultural experience.
“So, for example, one of the things that I found in Czech and from the Czech colleagues is how different an experience it is to read English literature and Shakespeare in particular in the context of recent political history. This is a country that has had a lot of suffering under an authoritarian and dictatorial regime and that is very interesting to me, because Shakespeare has so often been a figure who is associated with freedom. So studying an author like that under the Soviet era in Czechoslovakia, which I don’t know nearly enough about, but I have an inkling of what that experience was like, is so very different from studying Shakespeare in America or Britain or other countries you could name.”
What is the main difference, in your opinion, in how Shakespeare is received in Eastern and Central Europe compared to the English-speaking world?
“I am no expert on that, but one thing that is very clear, and this came out in Martin Hilský’s wonderful talk for the plenary lecture earlier in the week, and also in his account of the history of the National Theatre in Prague, and what I was absolutely fascinated to find out was that Shakespeare was central to the late 18th, mid-19th century move for national self-determination in the Czech lands. And he gave us a wonderful account of the Shakespeare festival, which took place in 1864 in Prague, as part of the National Theatre movement, which was really to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and it is quite clear that love of Shakespeare in this part of the world, strangely enough, combined with love of one’s native land. I find that fascinating.”
So now a bit about yourself, a very straightforward question, but when did your interest in Shakespeare begin?
“Most people say, when you ask that question, ‘Oh, it was a schoolteacher.’ In my case, I can’t say that was true, and even in my early university years, I can’t really recall feeling that Shakespeare was absolutely central. I do remember reading Hamlet though, at home, in my first year of university, and being completely bewildered by it, actually, when I say bewildered, I mean simply not understanding what was going on.
“And I don’t think I returned to Shakespeare for a couple of years. But it was in post-graduate study, at Yale University in the United States, when I was very fortunate to take a Shakespeare class with a very famous scholar, who now is sadly no longer with us, and that was George K. Hunter, he published as G.K. Hunter. He was a magnificent teacher. He was a slightly fearsome scholar. He couldn’t tolerate vagueness or silliness or not doing the work. And he scared off quite a few students. But somehow or other I stuck with him, and that changed my life.”
“I just wrote a book that came out last year, called Shakespeare’s Individualism. And in that book, I was really interested in the ways in which ideas of liberty and freedom, individuality, authenticity circulate in Shakespeare’s works. And the great thing about that topic is that you find that stuff everywhere in Shakespeare. So I wouldn’t say that I have a particular bit of Shakespeare that I work on, I’m interested in the whole thing.”
I believe your book has been called, by some, provocative. What do you think prompts people to say that your central thesis is provocative?
“I am actually quite proud of that. It’s provocative because it takes very seriously the idea of freedom. Often we talk about freedom in a very namby-pamby way; freedom is a nice thing, and so on. But when you think about it, freedom so often involves conflicts and problems, and if you are to be free, can I therefore be free. And what am I free to do? Anything at all, or only certain things, and so on it goes.
“So if you take the concept of liberty and individuality seriously, then I think you run into moral and political problems, and contradictions. And I think that Shakespeare’s plays show that. For example some of the freest characters in Shakespeare, Richard III for example, or Iago, or Aaron the Moor, a terrible psychopath in the play Titus Andronicus, not as well-known as Hamlet or Othello. These people are very free, but they are also really bad. I was interested in that paradox.”
You teach at the University of Queensland. How do young students today approach Shakespeare?
“That is a very hard question to answer, because there is a lot of thinking about this and I am not sure who is right. Some people say that young people today don’t want to or can’t read as extensively as people of my generation, so they say is that what you have to do is present material visually and in other media. One can see where they are coming from.
“My own view, but I cannot prove this, is that taught properly, patiently, carefully, young people can read Shakespeare just as well, if not better, than people in the past. There is more help now for them, to understand hard words, and unfamiliar cultural contexts and what not. So I don’t think so, really, I think that young people can enjoy Shakespeare and understand Shakespeare just as well as their counterparts in earlier times.”
With an author like Shakespeare, who has been written about for hundreds of years, is there still new and original research to be done?
“It is a good question: How can you keep studying this stuff that has been around for so long. I think the answer is that we change. We human beings, we live in particular places, particular times. What that means is that when we look at the past, we are looking at it from our own moment, our own interests and understandings. To give you an example: A century ago, or even fifty years ago, if you had said that Othello is a play mostly about race and it is about the tragedy of racial misunderstanding, and of the manipulation, by a villain, Iago, of racial stereotypes, convincing Othello that a white woman could never love him because he is a black man.
“If you had said that the tragedy was a tragedy of race, people would have thought that you are a little crazy. Yes, Othello is a moor, but really this is a tragedy of love, or destiny, or some other category. So I think that is an example. Now, we see that, but that is because in the intervening period we have had a whole wave of racial liberation movements, renewed consciousness of cultural and racial difference, so we see, in the plays, things that previous generations couldn’t actually see.
“They are there, they just couldn’t be seen. And the list goes on and on, of the ways in which contemporary concerns have been brought to bear on the plays, and yielded new insights. That process can go too far of course, we should always keep Shakespeare at the center, I believe, that we are trying to understand Shakespeare. But in understanding Shakespeare, we are also learning more about ourselves and we are bringing our own interests into relationship with that writer."
And lastly, for those who may be hesitant to read Shakespeare, what advice do you have?
“The first thing that I think you should do is not be scared. Many people have read Shakespeare, so anyone out there who is listening and thinks ‘It’s too hard for me.’ I don’t think that is right. Why not just get the text and read it. Don’t read the notes, don’t bother with commentary. They are quite short, you know? You can read a Shakespeare in an evening, maybe two evenings if you want to take a little more time with it. Don’t worry about not understanding every word in it.
“Remember, Shakespeare’s original audience included many people who were illiterate or close to illiterate, therefore they could not possibly have understood all of the intricacies of his expression and thought. So that is my first tip, just get the play and read it from beginning to end, don’t worry about notes and introductions. And then, possibly, go back and re-read it, you will get much more on the second time. And then start to gradually explore the play, with a good guide or a text that gives you some help with difficult words. It’s not that hard. The other thing that I would recommend is doing it with other people. It’s fun to have a group where you read together and can help each other.”
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