Lion Roars

February - March 2009

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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

The Church of Billy de Shake:

Summer Tour in Stratford-upon-Avon

by Jennifer Cognard-Black,
Associate Professor of English

I was raised in the Church of Shakespeare.

Students visit Anne Hathaway Cottage, Shakespeare's wife's childhood home, one mile from Stratford-upon-Avon

As unlikely as that sounds, it’s true—my mom and dad were English professors who were called to Shakespeare as others are called to the cloth. Growing up, I lived in a house with sacred icons in every room: Shakespeare busts adorned bookshelves, tabletops, and pedestals, including a small “kitchen god” version Mom kept on top of the fridge. We attended community performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as others attend Sunday service. My sister and I dressed in our best and played tic-tac-toe across our programs, waiting for Puck’s benediction of “Give me your hands, if we be friends” so we could go out for ice cream. At breakfast, we prayed “like a hell-broth boil and bubble” over our boiled eggs, and on Sunday afternoons, Mom selected parables from our colossal edition of the Complete Works, turning to the place in The Tempest or Much Ado About Nothing where we’d last left off. 

Then there were the pilgrimages. Every other summer, one or both of my parents took students to Stratford-upon-Avon to study Shakespeare in performance. From the beginning, these trips seemed devotional. We paid tithes to the Shakespeare Trust (i.e., museums) in order to slide our bottoms upon the bench where Will courted Anne Hathaway; we paid homage to the Bard by kneeling at his grave to read the scary injunction, “cursed be he that moves my bones” (a practical man, he anticipated that fame might draw scavengers after death); and we bought holy relics (gravestone rubbings) and swallowed holy wafers (biscuits from Hathaway’s Tearooms).

While these activities may sound more like tourism than a trip to the Holy Land, even as a girl, I found the mystical in the mundane. Walking through Shakespeare’s birthplace—a small Renaissance cottage in the heart of Stratford—I was struck by how many pilgrims over the centuries had carved their names in the mantelpiece or rubbed their thumbs across the smooth wood of the beams. The space trembled and hummed with a shared passion. And it is this motion and spirit that still rolls through Stratford which draws me to the place again and again—now as an English professor in my own right.

Since 2003, my spouse Andrew Cognard-Black and I have taken three groups of St. Mary’s students to Stratford to see astonishing plays put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), hear lectures by the foremost Shakespeare scholars in the world, and visit the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. And each time, students inevitably become Bardophiles, falling head over ears in love with the Willed Word. “Before this trip, even though I was an English major, I wasn’t sure whether I liked Shakespeare very much at all,” admits Alex Swope, a junior who traveled with us last summer. “Now, though, I am sure. I have a new and burgeoning love not only for Shakespeare but for theater in general.”

At the end of the day trip in Oxford, enjoying a drink at the eagle and Child pub

How does such transformation happen? How do students move from a place of intimidation or ambivalence to a place of honest love? I think this conversion happens because, when we’re in Stratford, Shakespeare is the food we eat, the atmosphere we breathe. He isn’t held up on a proverbial pedestal, where we must ooh and ahh at his greatness. Instead, his work is a living text. RSC voice coaches ask students to put hands to throats as they say “thick-ribbed ice” or “sensible warm motion” during ritual voice warm-ups. Students speak these words first loud and soft, then high and low, considering how sound equals sense—how k’s and b’s actually sound colder, s’s and m’s more snug. All of a sudden, Shakespeare is part of the students’ bodies. This jump from script to voice happens once again when students do a dramatic read-through of a play with professional actors. Sitting in a circle, students and actors read The Merchant of Venice or Twelfth Night or Romeo and Juliet straight through. They make Shakespeare in their mouths.

Yet the plays aren’t just a way to sound text; they are words in motion. So students attend all of the RSC and Globe productions for the season—seeing traditional and experimental and funny and poignant and disturbing productions—and then get a chance to talk face-to-face with the leads, to ask them why, say, one might play Midsummer’s Bottom in a fat suit or portray Taming’s Kate as a prostitute. Even the Shakespeare Centre scholars refuse to stand still behind the podium. While they talk with us about everything from Shakespeare’s creation of idiom to the history of commedia dell’arte, they sit with us, and their discussions are ever-infused with yet another kind of movement—the movement of ideas.Jennifer Cognard-Black reads a poem about Shakespeare

But even beyond genuine interactions with actors and academics, students make Shakespeare their own by inhabiting his town. They take their journals down to the riverside to watch swans glide along the Avon. They bike out to Mary Arden’s house to see Shakespeare’s maternal family farm. They hang out in Stratford’s gardens, eating sandwiches under mulberry trees, or have a pint with locals 1at the Black Swan pub (affectionately referred to as the Dirty Duck). When celebrities are in town, students aren’t cowed by their star-power. In 2003, St. Mary’s students chatted with Dame Judi Dench; in 2005, Prince Charles made an appearance in the city, shaking students’ hands; and just this past summer, two students ran into Patrick Stewart at a coffeeshop, who happily signed their notebooks before heading back to his Hamlet rehearsals.

In these many ways, taking students to Stratford ultimately epitomizes both the way Shakespeare was appreciated in his own day—by intellectuals and illiterates alike—as well as what liberal arts truly mean: turning classroom education into lived experience. As student Sam Ives said of her time in Stratford this past summer, “I came to Stratford-upon-Avon admiring Shakespeare, and I left knowing him.”

When I was a kid, my dad always called Shakespeare “Billy de Shake.” Although my parents were moved by his work so much that he became a kind of divinity, that divinity was never faceless, humorless, or diffuse. The Billy de Shake I grew up with is the same one my students get to know in Stratford. He is ever the kitchen god, a domestic deity blessing my boiled eggs, saying, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.”