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At the Ottoline Club: A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Walls, Weather, Work

The NCH Academic Blog | November 28, 2019

When should the scholar or teacher of Shakespeare’s works give prominence to parallels between his time and our own?

The Ottoline Club met on 1st October 2019 in the Archive to hear a talk by Dr. Daniel Swift.

Those present were: Daniel Swift, Charlotte Grant, Peter Maber, Catherine Brown, Flora Lisica and Alistair Robinson (Faculty of English), Kate Grandjouan and Niamh Bhalla (Faculty of Art History), Anthony Grayling (Master), Estelle Paranque (Faculty of History), Mike Peacey (Faculty of Economics), Sara Raimondi (Faculty of Politics and IR), and Sam Kimpton-Nye and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).

William Shakespeare was a partner at a start-up in Shoreditch. His early plays reflect an environment of intense concerns about immigrants. And at many points in his work, characters ask whether extreme weather is a sign of human disorders. In these and other ways, said Daniel, London in the late sixteenth century can be made to sound very much like London in the early twenty-first. It can be; but should it be? Daniel explored in his talk the relationship in the humanities between the responsibility one has as scholar or teacher to the object of study and the responsibility one has to one’s students or readers.

Prompted by various detailed features of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Daniel laid out a number of possible analogies between Shakespeare’s time and ours. Which analogies are interesting and helpful, by what criteria, and which are cheap, or too parochial? Thus Daniel took us from the impersonated wall in the drama of Pyramus and Thisbe to the London city wall within whose bounds theatres could not be built, and on to the idea of a wall on the Mexico-US border today. He rehearsed Shakespeare’s significant place in the history of artists’ control over, and their profit from, the reproduction of their works. He noted the echoes in the 1594 play of the unusual weather of the period in England and the social disruptions consequent upon it. This wide range of analogies suggested one could err both by overstating and by understating what is peculiar and special. They also pointed perhaps to a role, at least in teaching, for suggestive anachronism.

Two of the main themes of the ensuing discussion were those of self-disclosure in the lecture or tutorial room and of syllabus design. As regards letting students know where one stands in respect of current disputes, Catherine suggested that at any given time some moral or political issues tend to get treated as practically settled while others are regarded as matters of ‘moral taste’, where it’s thought incumbent upon teachers to let diversity flourish. Some colleagues were much in favour of avoiding as far as possible declaring such stances, while Estelle for instance thought it a not unhealthy result of our passion as scholars that we state where we stand.

As for syllabus design, it was striking to hear Mike say the topic of climate change is ignored in many economics syllabuses to which it is clearly relevant at the same time as several of the historians in the room agreed with Daniel that it has had a very large influence in the last decade or so, at least on research trends. Kate noted that the move away from historicism that Daniel had remarked upon in literary studies was also apparent in art historical studies of early modern satire; this encouraged attention to trans-historical patterns that could readily interest today’s students. And although Niamh expressed misgivings about some instances of the pursuit of balanced representation in history syllabuses, she was sympathetic to the basic aim, and Charlotte mentioned how engaging it can be for students learning about the eighteenth century to hear about the vegetarians of the time, or about attitudes to wastefulness and waste.

Could one say that syllabus design involves one in commitments as to what questions it is important to consider but not in any as to what views it is important to hold? Several comments of Daniel’s and Charlotte’s suggested they thought that a very difficult distinction to uphold. As regards the inevitable broader question of the purposes of humanities education, a recognisable triad of virtues, skills and acquaintance received at least passing mention. Thus David referred to the partly civic assets of curiosity, tolerance and a sense of responsibility. Charlotte spoke of giving students the tools to enable them to pursue their enthusiasms, and Catherine of enabling them to figure out what will be or should be growth areas in thought about humanities subjects. Doubtless compatibly with this, Anthony stressed the need to acquaint students properly with those bodies of received knowledge that might then become objects of critique.

Daniel’s detailed reflections prompted, typically, many fascinating points of exchange, about weather and climate, about artists’ earnings, and particularly about walls. Niamh and Anthony noted how walls can serve, in Shakespeare and in life, not only to deny good things to outsiders but also to conserve or protect what is inside when that is fragile. Catherine observed that some walls, such as the Great Wall of China and Hadrian’s Wall, effectively declared the intention of their builders to expand no further. She also pointed out that comparing certain notorious walls – Charlotte had mentioned the wall on the West Bank and the Berlin Wall – with certain less considered fences, such as the pre-Trump fence on the US-Mexico border or the fence that divided West from East Germany, helps us to distinguish walls’ roles as barriers, as signals, and as metaphors or symbols. Altogether, this was a rich beginning to the new season, and at least as regards renewed conversation among us about pedagogical ideals and methods very much only a beginning.