The Spirit of Enthusiastic Scholarship

This post was contributed by Natalie Fong, an alumna of Birkbeck’s MA Victorian Studies.

As I approached the familiar light glowing from the corner beacon that is 30 Russell Square to attend the Shakespeare and the Senses seminar of Birkbeck’s Arts Week 2013, I felt distinctly nostalgic. It’s nearly 10 years since I first started classes there for the MA in Victorian Studies (2004-2006). I remember the very first meeting in that very building, a room of people of all ages and walks of life, regarding each other excitedly but also nervously – what was to come? Who would complete the challenge of working and studying? I look back at the two years that I studied at Birkbeck with great fondness, as wonderful evenings in 30 Russell Square and Malet Street engaged in lively intellectual debate with clever and witty people with whom I remain firm friends.

Jessica Barrett has already written a comprehensive review of the Shakespeare and the Senses seminar, so I will merely add reflections as an alumna.

It was great to hear three equally engaging, connected yet distinct, papers on the senses (or lack thereof) in Shakespeare’s works:

  • Simon Smith detailing the use of sound in plays (music, clapping, references to music in Shakespeare’s plays), but also the effects of sounds from the theatre on their neighbours
  • Gillian Woods’ expounding of “seeing is believing” through an analysis of The Winter’s Tale, sight and morality (the fears that the theatre’s deception of sight leads to temptation)
  • Derek Dunne’s fascinating deconstruction of the deprivation of the senses in Titus Andronicus – how literal deprivation is also symbolic deprivation (e.g. the silencing of tongues equating to, as well as resulting from, the Roman court’s suppression of free speech)

It was a great privilege to once again be part of the Birkbeck experience, to spend an evening in the presence of inspiring intellectuals (here I pay brief homage to the late, great Dr Sally Ledger, who encouraged me to be a better student and, later, to channel her passion through my own teaching). Bouncing thoughts around during discussion time with people of different ages and cultures, appreciating how pooling our understandings of the talks opened up further intriguing possibilities for study, reminded me again of the fun times my friends and I used to have at twilight tutorials.

It is that we alumni hope Birkbeck can sustain, despite the current climate. Arts Week captured the best that Birkbeck has to offer those who want to receive a quality education while they work. Hopefully the success of Arts Week (judging by the blog posts) will speak clearly to the powers that be of the importance of championing part-time higher education.

As the great Bard himself wrote in The Winter’s Tale: “It is required that you do awake your faith.” Seeing really is believing!

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Shakespeare and the Senses

This post was contributed  by Jessica Barrett, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

On Tuesday evening Birkbeck arts students attended a successful presentation on Shakespeare and the Senses with Mr Simon Smith, Dr Gillian Woods and Dr Derek Dunne as part of the 2013 Birkbeck Arts Week.

The evening began with Simon Smith’s talk on sound within and without of the theatre. Attendees listened to clips of music from the early modern era. One clip, called The City Cries by Richard Dering, gave examples of the street noises one might hear of people selling their wares at the markets in Elizabethan London. Also, Mr. Smith called attention to the measurement of sound by comparing the decibels of applause, a human shout and moderate surf, all noises that would have surrounded the Elizabethan playhouses. Lastly, Smith highlighted a 1596 petition to the Privy Council by 31 Blackfriars’ residents, which prevented Shakespeare’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, from moving into the city because of fear of noise pollution. Smith’s lecture was an interesting exploration into the sounds of early Modern England, adding a three-dimensional quality to what life surrounding the playhouses might have been like, as well as reminding us that sound is one sense that can happen to you without you actively or purposely taking part.

Dr Woods followed with an insightful look at George Hakewill’s The Vanitie of the Eye, focusing on how sight was considered the most dangerous of all senses to many Elizabethans (especially anti-theatricalists). Sight was compared with types of sin alluding to how, like sin, theatre spectators can become trapped or fixated on what they are gazing upon. Woods exemplified her points by focusing on The Winter’s Tale and its plot of deception. Leontes thinks he sees his wife, Hermione flirting with his good friend Polixenes, which leads to Hermione’s arrest, and trial. Woods ended her talk by deconstructing the last scene, where Hermione’s statue comes to life, a moment of idolatrous wonder from her daughter, Perdita, and a transformation, which confuses audience members’ seeing it for the first time.

Dr Dunne closed the night’s talks with a discussion on sound deprivation in relation to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and the judicial system of Rome. The play’s many instances of deafness, dumbness, and blindness were seen as a loss of metaphor for a judicial system that does not listen. Dunne goes further in his analogy by examining how tears are a result of the blindness and dumbness and are instrumental in obscuring meaning creating ambivalence in the thoughts of the characters.

Those who attended the talks were keen to ask questions at the end and further explore the final scene in The Winter’s Tale as well as commenting on sensory overload in Shakespearean films which contrasted nicely with the presenters’ topics.

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Jokes, Laughter and Literature

This post was contributed by James Brown, from Birkbeck’s External Relations Department.

One of the first books I owned was Allan Ahlberg’s Ha Ha Bonk joke book. A collection of mostly bad puns and word play. As a child, I used to bring terror on holiday in joke book form, by forcing family members to relive my favourite jokes until they pleaded for mercy – a kind of verbal waterboarding. The title of the book is a promise that the jokes will make you laugh so hard that your head will fall off, which is a rash promise given quite how subjective jokes are. Standard fare is “What happened to the man who stole a calendar? He got twelve months.” Ha ha. Bonk.

But, as Adam Smyth (Birkbeck lecturer in Renaissance Literature) explained at Jokes, Laughter and Literature (part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week) joke books and their popularity or otherwise are nothing new. In 1600, twelve years after his death, Tarlton’s Jests was published as a collection of the jokes of Richard Tarlton. He was a renowned clown and actor of the day, who is said to have been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, and whose witticisms and songs were extremely popular at the time. Unfortunately, his humour may not have found favour with William Shakespeare. An original draft of Hamlet has the Prince warning Yorick of the perils of overacting clowns, performing jokes that the audience already knows. Tarlton had been a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theatre group for whom Shakespeare wrote much of his work, and Yorick is said to be based on him.

Lecturer in Modern Literature Kate McLoughlin went on to talk us through the three main theories in philosophy for why people find jokes funny. Perhaps Shakespeare is indulging in Thomas Hobbes’ theory of superiority, which is that generally we laugh at other people’s misfortune. In Tarlton’s case, he’d just died, and misfortune doesn’t get much more misfortunate than that. But misfortune in itself surely can’t be enough. I went to an open mic night at a comedy club recently, where the floor was open to anyone brave enough to give five minutes of their best jokes. I’m in awe of anyone who has the courage to stand in front of a room full of strangers asserting that they’re funny enough for you to want to pay to hear their jokes, but the results were mixed; for some, the loudest response to their one-liners was the sound of dreams being ruthlessly crushed. Those who didn’t raise a laugh were misfortunate; but sadly weren’t funny.

On the other hand, Immanuel Kant’s Incongruity Theory has it that finding something funny revolves around derailed expectations, with the best punch lines being unpredictable. It would be interesting to find out how Kant thought his theory stacked up against an episode of My Family, but by the time the sitcom was written Kant had died a couple hundred years ago, as indeed had some of the jokes. But neither does the theory explain why catchphrase comedy is, or at least has been, so popular – where knowing exactly what a character is going to say, and the anticipation of it, is from where much of the audience derives humour. Sigmund Freud’s theory of what humans find funny is the relief theory, that we funnel energy from sexual repression or pent-up emotion; as a ritual to ward off tension. It’s certainly true that laughter can release tension, but is that the same as saying that jokes are what causes relief?

American journalist HL Menken said that “a philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn’t there”. I’m no more qualified to say what makes people laugh than a giraffe is to breakdance. Perhaps it’s easier to say what’s absolutely not funny. To return to the comedy club, it’s relatively easy to define what’s not funny. A full two years after its creation, one of the aspiring comedians opened their set with a line about how the iPad sounds like it’s a feminine product.

Ha ha indeed. But definitely no bonk.

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