Shakespeare for the 21st century

Centuries after first being performed, Shakespeare’s work is still relevant, says Amy Rodgers, even to Mount Holyoke’s sizeable international community.

Before she became an associate professor of English and film studies at Mount Holyoke College, Amy Rodgers was a professional dancer with Joffrey Ballet — she began dancing with Washington Ballet when she was 16 years old. 

An injury caused her to change direction and she turned to a life of academia. Today, her expertise includes early modern literature and culture, film studies, audience and popular culture. And, of course, performance and dance studies — where she combines her interests in a myriad of ways. Notably, Rodgers co-founded The Shakespeare and Dance Project, which brings together performers, directors and other theater professionals, as well as scholars and theater and dance historians, to explore dance sequences in the Bard’s plays.

Her range of interests has led to a wide variety of publications on topics including Renaissance court masque, the Hindi-language film director Vishal Bhardwaj, and the influence of Shakespeare’s history plays on “Game of Thrones.” 

Her book, “A Monster With a Thousand Hands: The Discursive Spectator in Early Modern England,” was recently published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Rodgers is also dean of the senior class and a member of the film studies and theater steering committees. She recently arranged for an 11-day residency with Keith Hamilton Cobb that included several performances of his play, “American Moor,” about an African-American actor auditioning for the part of Othello. 

Rodgers spoke with Sasha Nyary from the Office of Communications and Marketing about Shakespeare, dance and why the Bard continues to be relevant, 400 years after his plays were first performed. 

How did you transition from being a professional ballet dancer to a Shakespearean professor?

I wasn’t focused on theater when I went to graduate school. I thought I was going to work on epic poetry. Unlike some of my friends who had been dancers before going to college, when I went to college I wanted to leave my dance background behind. I felt ready to move on to other things. 

That said, my dance career haunted me, in terms of my interests. I didn’t see the connection early on, but I was really interested in voyeurism and epic poetry. I was drawn toward working with the people who specialized in drama. It became clear that I was really interested in spectatorship and audience, having spent so much time thinking about audiences as a performer.

Why are audiences important when you are examining performance? 

One of the things that you do constantly, if you’re as a dancer or an actor, is try to predict certain kinds of responses. You want people to like your show, your performance. So you have to be thinking about who the audiences are. What are they looking for? That’s really difficult, because audiences change. You can put lots of resources into a given production but if you’re going to take it around the country or around the world, you can’t tailor it for every single audience. So you do your best. 

In the field of audience studies, there’s a bias that when performing artists are creating, they’re trying to understand and influence their audience and that this influence flows in only one direction: from the artist to the audience. 

As I worked on my dissertation, I realized that what I was working on is an idea I came to call the “discursive spectator.” As I understand it, the discursive spectator is how various subjects in the early modern period — the 16th, 17th and parts of the 18th centuries — imagined and came to understand their audiences through channels such as word-of-mouth, antitheatrical rhetoric, state regulations and censorship practices. By subjects, I particularly mean playwrights, theater practitioners and what we would now call theater managers.

I argue in my book that the way that theater practitioners created their work around the discursive spectator played a role — and still plays a role — in influencing people’s viewing and interpretative practices. That how we talk about and represent audiences plays a role in shaping us as viewers. We aren’t just formed by the media that we’re engaging with. I see it as much more of a symbiotic relationship, not a one-way street.

Does an audience look at a live performance differently from a film?

I think it works differently in other art forms. For instance, film definitely has a role in creating viewers, but film can’t adapt. For example, if you’re in a dance performance, you get a bad review or the audience seems to be restless, you might tweak or even largely revise something. If you make a film that comes out, everybody responds to it and that’s what it is and that’s what it’s going to be. 

Some people also say — although I don’t know if I totally buy it — that because the camera controls so much of what you see as a film spectator, it’s a much more constraining device. Scholars have often placed film in opposition to theater, in that if you are watching a live stage performance, the audience members might not be looking at what they’re supposed to be. They might be looking at their phone, or thinking about meatloaf or falling asleep. But that’s true of film too. Somebody could just as easily be looking at their phone or thinking about meatloaf. It’s a little bit of a fiction that film controls us more thoroughly as spectators than live performances.

In 2019, is Shakespeare still relevant? 

I’m very interested in Shakespeare and adaptation, so that’s a question I think about a lot. The class I taught in the fall, Activist Shakespeare, is a response to that question, as was my interest in bringing “American Moor” to campus. 

The people that I think are doing the most exciting work in Shakespeare right now, in terms of adaptation and film, are visionaries like Vishal Bhardwaj, a Hindi-language filmmaker. He’s done three of the big four Shakespearean tragedies: “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Hamlet.” He’s also a composer — he composes all the music for his Shakespeare films, which returns music to a pre-eminent role, one it would have had in the Renaissance. 

Bhardwaj sets these films in different places in India. “Macbeth” is set in the underworld of Mumbai, and the “Hamlet” adaptation, called “Haider,” is set in Kashmir during the 1990s conflict between India and Pakistan. Bhardwaj manages to make “Hamlet” work as an insightful and moving commentary on contemporary India-Pakistan history. He illuminates one path that Shakespeare’s works might take in telling stories about not only early modern English and European culture, but also about our own, global, multinational world. 

How do you teach students who might not be very familiar with Shakespeare? 

I think that many people in the 21st century would echo Ben Jonson’s 17th-century quote about Shakespeare, “He was not of an age but for all time.” I have a friend who runs a theater company in Rhode Island — and who is very well-versed in Shakespeare’s plays — and he says the continued appeal of Shakespeare’s works is its “humanity.” 

That seems a little vague to me. I don’t know if that’s true for all my students. We have students here from Southeast Asia and South Asia. We have students from Africa. We have domestic students of color who might not readily identify with Shakespeare’s characters or plots. I can’t assume that Shakespeare is meaningful to them.

But one thing you can say about Shakespeare’s work is that it has been deeply embedded in the Anglophone tradition for centuries. That tradition has had a big role in education across the world. It’s embedded in the structure of many secondary school classes. So, while not every student may understand Shakespeare, or feel that he speaks to them, it’s part of their educational foundation. Most of my students, even if English isn’t their first language, have read Shakespeare in some form. And those who haven’t still usually know something about his work.

I like to think about Shakespeare’s plays in conversation with those pedagogical and curricular traditions and some of the problems with them, such as their role in colonial, Anglophone and Western hegemony. He also tends to be taught with an emphasis on the traditions and ideology of his own historical period. But many of our students respond to the ways that these texts reinforce certain racist, patriarchal and proto-colonial ideologies. They are less interested in what Shakespeare meant in his own era than they are in what these works mean in ours. 

This sort of student “resistance” was something I struggled with, as my graduate training was deeply informed by historicist methodology. But for the past few years, I’ve been engaging these student concerns in terms of how and what I teach. It’s actually opened up new possibilities for me in my research, particularly in my willingness to admit that my own past and subject position deeply informs my interests and analytical perspective.  

I like to think that our students can take Shakespeare and learn enough so that they might do something of their own with it. Shakespeare still speaks to us. There have always been adaptations of Shakespeare in other languages, that’s not a new tradition. But now many different voices are starting to speak with it. Now there’s more of a proliferation. Now is a moment where people — who even 20 years ago might have said “I don’t see myself in this” — are picking up these works and saying, “This is for me and this is what I want to say through it.”

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