UNH’s First ‘Shakespeare Lab’ Demystifies Famous Playwright

Thursday, September 13, 2012
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Shakespeare Lab

Remember in high school when you were assigned to read Shakespeare and finished a play not quite knowing exactly what Shakespeare meant? You’re not alone. In fact, Shakespeare is so challenging that even those who study his works marvel at the different ways they are interpreted.

In an effort to demystify Shakespeare, UNH recently held its first Shakespeare Lab, which brought together faculty members from the English and Theatre and Dance departments who provided students and community members with an understanding of the language of Shakespeare, a glimpse into the world of London Renaissance theater, and an understanding of the themes presented in Shakespeare’s famous play Macbeth, which will be presented at UNH Oct. 3-7, 2012, at the Johnson Theatre.

“Macbeth is an opportunity to discover Shakespeare. It is a play about desperate times and presents patterns of human experience that do not change, which is why directors can set Shakespeare in different places at different times. Most people do not ‘know’ Macbeth so we are trying to help people understand the different interpretations,” said Georgeann Murphy, International Research Opportunities Program coordinator and affiliate associate professor of English.

“What you see on the page is not the whole experience. It’s a script. And it’s very challenging to play Shakespeare. Page to stage takes an awful lot of effort,” Murphy said.

Shakespeare played a critical role in the rise of English literature during a time when Latin was the preferred language of high art and serious culture, explained Rachel Trubowitz, professor of English. In fact, Shakespeare created new words that are well-known today, such as “lonely” and “homicide,” as well as phrases that are now common, such as “as dead as a doornail” and “in a pickle.”

And, of course, when it comes to language, one cannot discuss Shakespeare without some acquaintance with iambic pentameter, the strong but flexible meter of his plays and sonnets.

Shakespeare lived during the golden era of Renaissance theater in London when the first successful, permanent theater (called The Theatre) was constructed outside of the city of London (so city officials couldn’t shut it down) for the primary purpose of theatrical productions, said Doug Lanier, professor of English. Prior to this, most stages were temporary so playwrights such as Shakespeare used highly descriptive language to compensate for the relatively set-free, open, bare stage that was the standard of the time.

Shakespeare is known for changing his writing style to adapt to new changes in the theater. For example, he added intermissions to his plays following the construction of the first indoor theater so the candles that illuminated the stage could be changed. Shakespeare also wrote plays for his favorite actors, such as Richard Burbage, who played the first Macbeth.

Yet despite the fluidness of Shakespeare’s writing and his ability to adapt it to the times, the themes of his plays remain universal. Deborah Kinghorn, associate professor of theatre and dance, is directing UNH’s October production of Macbeth.

“Out-of-control ambition and the dilemma between choosing selfishly or for the good of a whole community are themes that resonate in today’s world, too,” Kinghorn said.

Kinghorn’s upcoming UNH production of Macbeth is a post-apocalyptic interpretation that ties into the end of the world in 2012 that some thought was predicted by the Mayan calendar. The setting is many years following nuclear devastation and focuses on a man who, through unchecked personal ambition, destroys himself and his friends and plunges his community into war.

“As in Shakespeare’s day, we are creating a stage setting that can represent many different locations, one that you can fill with your imagination,” Kinghorn said.

Nick Iannotti, a senior majoring in musical theatre, plays Macbeth in the UNH production, and Danielle Barrett, a junior majoring in history and theatre with an emphasis on acting, plays Lady Macbeth.

Barrett said that like the themes in Shakespeare, confusion about Shakespeare is universal. “It’s understandable. It’s difficult to read, but if you can see the themes in the performance, understanding Shakespeare is less difficult.”

Iannotti echoed Barrett’s thoughts. “People get so caught up because Shakespeare is so wordy, but if it’s performed well, the audience gets it,” he said.

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