Lecture Abstracts

Presenter: Keith Hamilton Cobb
Title: “The Thing is the Thing: Playing and Not Playing Shakespeare While Black”

The black American actor’s experience is in no way divisible from his experience as a black American. With regard to playing Shakespeare, there is as much not playing it as playing it in the black American tragedian’s life despite his every effort and intention.  When we look at this issue in terms of the “practical humanities,” we may find that humanity is the problem, and practicality is extremely relative.

Presenter: Michael Witmore
Title: “Is it Practical to Talk about Shakespeare and Race?”

It is a commonplace to say that Shakespeare is for all people. Equally true, however, is the fact that each of us brings a set of defining experiences to our encounters with Shakespeare. Sometimes the plays and poems speak to us in our uniqueness. There are also times, however, when a person’s sense of belonging — to a profession, to a racial or ethnic group, a religious, philosophical or social perspective — is called out by the plays. That process can be by turns affirmative or unsettling depending on who is being addressed and how. In this talk, Witmore will explore this dynamic of “selective address” in which different aspects of our individual and shared being get admitted into the conversation about what Shakespeare’s works are about, and why they matter.

Presenter: Ayanna Thompson
Title: “Confessions of a Black Shakespearean, Or, A Talk about Productive Grappling”

Over the years, I realized that I see Shakespeare productions very differently than do my white colleagues and friends. When I teach Shakespeare in my university classes, when I see a contemporary Shakespearean production on film, the stage, or the internet, when I hear and see allusions to Shakespeare in commercials, television shows, and the popular media, I see race: whiteness, blackness, Hispanic-ness, Asian-ness, the normatively raced, and the deviantly raced. It is always there; it is always present; it always impacts the way Shakespeare is being employed. Nontraditional casting—the practice of casting actors of color in roles that were originally imagined as white characters to be performed by white actors—is a common phenomenon on British and American stages, especially in contemporary productions of classical plays. Nonetheless, very little research has been conducted on the effects of perceptions of race in/as performance on classical stages. This talk will set up a series of practical challenges for the future of reception studies.

Presenter: Peter Erickson
Title: “The Power of Practicality in Shakespeare Studies”

Peter Erickson examines the prospects for substantial and long-term practical value in the study of Shakespeare’s work. Erickson pursues this question by contrasting two distinct approaches. He defines the first as “impractical,” while he demonstrates the second as having deep and lasting practical significance. Sustained practicality in the Shakespearean context ultimately hinges on recognizing the difference between these two results.

Respondent: Kim. F. Hall
Title: “Speak This Yearning”

While my comments will largely respond to the other symposium papers, I would like to bring into our conversation some discussion of Pan-African writer John E. Bruce, who, in a 1916 speech to “Ye Friends of Shakespeare,” outlines a very practical program for self-directed Shakespeare study. I will read Bruce’s relationship to Shakespeare through bell hooks’ notion of yearning: I hope this will provide a space for us to attend to the relationship between pleasure, joy and social justice as a “practical” matter.