Monday 06 Feb 2017

Shakespeare in the 21st Century

Most people will agree that William Shakespeare is a great writer. His position at the centre of English-speaking culture, and beyond, is already secure, and he will still be taught and studied for a long time to come. In other words, Shakespeare is here to stay. Yet while some people will grow to become ardent fans, for many (if not most), Shakespeare is something that you have to get through at school and the sooner it’s over with, the better. 

Setting the stage for his audience of La Grande Boissière Secondary students at the Centre des arts, Oliver Morgan, Assistant Professor at the University of Geneva and Shakespeare specialist, quite literally warned students that his lecture would not be what they expect. No pun intended.

In fact, not only did Morgan not dive into the traditional accolades and glorification that usually accompany any mention of Shakespeare, he even went on to call for a reassessment of the ways the Bard is taught. Accordingly, he also gave Ecolint students a few good pieces of advice for their current and future study of Shakespeare. 

“We need a way of reading Shakespeare that does not require us to understand the meaning of every word, a way that starts with the basics and builds its way up” suggested Morgan, who has dubbed this new method as “the pragmatic approach”. Inspired by pragmatics, the branch of linguistics concerned with what language does rather than what it means, Morgan’s method looks at language in context. 

Using a single scene from Macbeth, Morgan showed Ecolint students how to strip a scene down to its bare minimum and then build one’s understanding up layer by layer. The first step involved removing all words so that only the list of characters who speak remained, together with stage directions. To this list, Morgan added a first layer of information by indicating whom the characters were addressing. “Known as turn-taking analysis, we begin to see that by paying attention to the shape of Shakespeare’s dialogue rather than its contents, we can already learn a great deal” explained Morgan. For example, by observing how often a character speaks in a given scene, we can deduce the importance of that character vis-à-vis the others. It can give us a sense of a character’s social status but also of the power dynamics within a group. 

The second level of information involved adding speech acts to the above list. Once again turning to linguistics, but also to philosophy, Morgan explored what actions the words can perform: requests, warnings, invitations, promises, apologies, predictions, and the like. In so doing, we can understand the purpose of the dialogue, without getting lost in the complexity of Shakespeare’s language. 

Finally, the last step consisted of identifying terms of address, usually names or honorifics. “By showing how one person chooses to address another, it tells us about what is happening at that moment and about the characters,” concluded Morgan. In other words, when Macbeth calls his servant a “cream-faced loon!” or a “villain!” we get a clear sense of his contempt and impatience. Thus, this last layer of information helps define not only a character’s mood, but, when the full play is pieced together, gives a global impression of their personality. 

Ecolint students learned that even without looking in detail at the meaning of a text, a lot can be deduced from its basic structure and from simple key words. If some walked into the Centre des arts apprehensive about receiving a university-level lecture on Shakespeare, all walked out keys in hand, ready to tackle their next English class with a fresh set of skills.

Oliver Morgan presented Shakespeare in the 21st century at the Centre des arts on 27 January 2017 as part of the La Grande Boissière Lecture Series.

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