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Q&A with Two Shakespeareans

Q&A with Two Shakespeareans

Close up portrait of William ShakespeareFirst Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare kicked off with more than 600 visitors at the Grand Opening Carnival on Saturday August 20th!

Later this week we welcome our Keynote Speaker– world renowned “First Folio Hunter” Dr. Eric Rasmussen, Chair of the English Department at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Rasmussen’s presentation “The Saint-Omer Shakespeare First Folio Goes Viral” takes place this Thursday September 1st at 7pm at Boise State’s Yanke Research Building, 220 E. Parkcenter Blvd.

To get ready for his visit, we asked one of our own Shakespearean scholars on campus, Dr. Matt Hansen of the Department of English, to come up with some questions for Dr. Rasmussen—Shakespearean to Shakespearean. Check out their conversation and meet Eric Rasmussen on September 1st at the Yanke. The event features a book signing of his engaging 2011 work The Shakespeare Thefts on sale now at the University Bookstore and at the gallery.

Q&A – Two Shakespeareans: Eric Rasmussen and Matthew C. Hansen

MH: I’ve found that nearly every academic has an interesting story relating how they came to their area of specialization. What’s yours? Why sixteenth and seventeenth century literature and why Shakespeare?
ER: When I was three years old, my parents bought a Pontiac Tempest station wagon which my mother named “Miranda” (after the character is Shakespeare’s play) and she baked a cake for it. Seriously. That Miranda Tempest cake with teal icing is my earliest memory. Clearly fated to work on Shakespeare.

MH: How did you become interested in working so specifically on the Folios?
ER: My work on the First Folio was an outgrowth of my editing of the Complete Works of Shakespeare for the Royal Shakespeare Company for which we made the relatively radical decision to use the First Folio as our copy-text.

MH: You’ve personally inspected every or nearly every known copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Which is your favorite copy? (Or, which copy has the best story in your opinion?)
ER: There’s a copy now in Japan that was once owned by the playwright William Congreve that has a musket bullet hole in it.

MH: As of this year, Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years. Why are we still talking about him?
ER: The coolest thing about Shakespeare is that he deals with issues that we still consider to be “hot-button” even in the 21st century. In Measure for Measure there’s an instance of sexual harassment: a woman who is about to become a nun is propositioned by a man in power, saying that if she sleeps with him, he’ll arrange to have her brother released from prison. The woman threatens to tell everyone about this. But he responds that nobody will believe her: he’s a man, she’s a woman; he’s in power, she’s not. So four centuries before Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Shakespeare is taking on the issue of sexual harassment head on!

MH: Is Shakespeare inherently better than, say, Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe (or Middleton, or Marston, or Webster…)? If so, how or why? If not, why does Shakespeare get all the attention? Should he?
ER: I’ve edited the complete works of Marlowe for Oxford University Press and the works of the Ben Jonson for Cambridge University Press, so obviously have a stake in both of these contemporaries of Shakespeare. I think the difficulty with Jonson is that his plays have quite a few local allusions to 17th-century events, which can be difficult for 21st-century audiences to understand. Marlowe’s a more interesting case. Both born in 1564, Marlowe and Shakespeare were exact contemporaries. However, by the late 1580s, Marlowe had written several masterpieces, all of them massive commercial successes, whereas Shakespeare had produced only a handful of history plays about King Henry VI. As such, there is a widespread tendency to stereotype the two dramatists – as does the film Shakespeare in Love – valorizing Marlowe as a gifted superstar while dismissing Shakespeare as a slow-to-learn fledgling. But I think that a more nuanced understanding of their relationship can be teased out: Marlowe invents blank verse in Tamburlaine, which Shakespeare admires and adopts for Henry VI; Marlowe, in turn, admires Shakespeare’s ability to both defer to the wishes of the Elizabethan authorities, by writing about an English king, while simultaneously subverting them, by choosing a weak and ineffectual one, which Marlowe then imitates by choosing Edward II as the subject for his next play, a king who neglects everything in the kingdom except his male favorite and is overthrown and murdered by his barons; Shakespeare then continues the theme by writing about the overthrow of Richard II. Given this mutually-beneficial working out of their craft, one is left to wonder why Marlowe may have been targeted by the authorities and murdered in 1593, while Shakespeare was not.

MH: I personally believe that everyone should have access to Shakespeare and the opportunity to read, hear, and understand the unique things his writing achieves with language. In other words, I know everyone can (and perhaps should) benefit from reading or seeing and hearing Shakespeare. But I’m not convinced that a Shakespeare course should be required of all undergraduates. What do you think?
ER: The difficulty is that most undergraduates will not voluntarily take early literature courses (assuming that they’re in “ye olde Englishe”), but when they do take them they have this epiphany that “OMG, this stuff is so cool!”

MH: You’re almost certainly in high demand this year (especially) with the Folger Folio tour and other special events related to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. What’s the best invitation (apart from Boise State’s, of course!) that you have received?
ER: Yes, I’m something of the talking head du jour (thus far this year I’ve lectured in Oxford, London, Paris, Prague, Santa Fe, Tucson, and Kansas City). The most interesting experience to date has been in Santa Fe — where the woman who ran publicity for my lecturer turned out to be someone I used to date in high school 38 years ago – and they were also running an exhibition of rock guitars, so the exhibition hall had seventeen Fender Stratocasters in glass cases rubbing shoulders with the case holding the Shakespeare First Folio. A genuinely weird pairing!

MH: I suspect we will get to hear about some of the stories related to the unique copies of the Folio you have examined. Give us a quick teaser to get an audience excited and prepared for your talk on September 1st.
ER: The Royal Shakespeare Company owns a copy of the First Folio that they took with them to Vatican City for a papal performance in 1964. After the play, they brought their previous folio onstage. The plan was for the pope to bless it. But the pope hadn’t been properly briefed and accepted it as a gift!

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