Solving Shakespeare

by Jenifer Abercrombie

“Who was Viola again?” “Is this even real?” “Where exactly is Illyria?” These were all questions that flooded the Multi-Media Room on Thursday night for the first CLASS seminar. And rightly so as Dr. Marcia McDonald, resident Shakespeare scholar, explained that the Bard’s Twelfth Night is “kind of mysterious.” Shakespeare’s Illyria, a setting imagined somewhere in the Mediterranean, appears as a fantasy realm populated by characters trying to be just about everything but their true selves. Deception and masked feelings wait around every corner in this song and dance, but through the mess of identities and mismatched pairings Dr. McDonald began to reveal a purpose behind Shakespeare’s comedic madness. As the discussion about the play dove deeper into the text, foreign shores became an opportunity for new adventures and holiday spirit, while characters like Viola’s perpetually drunk uncle, Sir Toby, became symbols of familiar English pub culture. And what about this Shakespeare guy anyway? To understand his work, Dr. McDonald went back to the man, who “thought about everything through the theatre,” and began painting a picture of him outside the “ivory tower” of his literary reputation and closer to the people that he would have encountered on the streets of Elizabethan England.

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A group of actors plan out some swordplay.

Decoding Shakespeare became easier and easier as the lecture moved from the page to the stage and Denice Hicks, director of Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Twelfth Night, took the floor. She began by discussing the production itself and what it’s like to take centuries old drama to a modern audience. From specific directorial choices like the addition of a live band to reminding actors to unfurl their brows in tender scenes, she not only explained the staging of this Twelfth Night, but also gave a glimpse into the life of the dramatic arts in general. But the question still floated in the air: how are Elizabethan language and puffy sleeves relevant in 2015? For Denice Hicks, the answer was simple: “The best way to understand Shakespeare is to play.”

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‘Sir Toby’ explains the situation to ‘Malvolio.’

Scripts were handed out as groups of acting troupes began forming all across the room. Malvolios took on their smug snarls, while Festes danced about and Violas lamented over unrequited love. Students began grabbing at dictionaries and pronunciation guides and plotting out just how they were going to take the stage. Dr. McDonald, Denice Hicks, and another of Belmont’s English professors, Dr. Jayme Yeo, filtered around the room helping students get in touch with the love, loss, and mischief of their Shakespearean alter egos. Even though the words may have been unfamiliar, Denice Hicks encouraged the students to remember that “humans haven’t changed that much[. . .] we still get in to trouble with our hearts.” Before too long proclamations started ringing out through the hall in language that no longer seemed so dense or foreign. Twenty minutes of rehearsal later the actors were ready to take their marks, and so began the highlights of Twelfth Night presented by the CLASS Scholars. There were laughs and sighs and sword fights with flying ink pens that concluded in a thunderous round of applause from all in attendance.

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Groups hard at play.

After the merriment had ended, the scholars returned to their seats to talk about the new understanding they had gained from not only watching but becoming Twelfth Night’s ludicrous cast of players. Empathizing with the opposite gender or being free of restraint as they lunged in duels of blades and even sharper words were revelations echoed all around. By the end of the night there were requests to see more plays in the future, and the scholars filed out of auditorium seeing Shakespeare a little less like an unsolvable puzzle and a little more like a familiar friend.

CLASS Scholars Night At Nashville Shakespeare Festival

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Feste (Garris Wimmer) entreats Olivia (Tamiko Robinson) in Twelfth Night at the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. (Photo by Rick Malkin photography.)

On January 8, the CLASS Scholars attended the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production of Twelfth Night at the Troutt Theater on the campus of Belmont University. It was opening night both for the play and for the CLASS Seminar series for Spring 2015. Professor Marcia McDonald distributed note cards for the attendees to write down their questions and observations about the play. Dr. McDonald will be presenting at the next seminar along with Denice Hicks, Creative Director for the Nashville Shakespeare Festival.