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Listening to Shakespeare’s Foreigners

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Caliban (from Twelve Characters from Shakespeare), Etched and published by John Hamilton Mortimer (British, Eastbourne 1740–1779 London), May 20, 1775. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1962.

Date: Thursday 12 June, 2014
Time: 4:30-6:00pm (reception to follow)
Venue: The University of Queensland, Michie Building No. 9), Level 6, Room 601
Presenter: Prof Jonathan Gil Harris (Ashoka University) Dr Jennifer Clement (The University of Queensland)


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There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the physical appearance of Shakespeare’s foreigners, and how skin colour (e.g.Othello’s and Aaron’s blackness) or other visible markers of difference (e.g. Shylock’s Jewish nose) would have been staged in his theatre and/or should be staged in the present. This attention presumes that we literally see ethnic and racial difference, that it belongs chiefly to the realm of the visible (or of “colour”). But how does Shakespeare also make his foreigners – Othello, Caliban, Aaron, Don Armado, Shylock, the Prince of Morocco, Fluellen, Macmorris, the faux-foreigners who kidnap Parolles, even the Scottish Witches – sound different? Can we distinguish between nuanced characterization and crass caricature when it comes to the distinctive sounds of Shakespeare’s foreigners?

As teachers, should we revile or revisit G. Wilson Knight’s infamous embrace of what he called the “Othello music” to help students understand how Shakespeare’s audiences might hear more than they see ethnic and cultural difference? Do we in fact have something to learn from the malapropism-inclined Bottom when he says that “I hear a face”?

Dr Jennifer Clement (UQ, Lecturer in EMSAH and CHE Associate Investigator) will follow with a response and discussion session: “Listening to Shakespeare’s Foreigners – and their Emotions” Jonathan Gil Harris asks us to think about ways that Shakespeare’s foreigners might have been characterised by how they sounded. Building on this fascinating question, we might also ask how the distinctive sounds of Shakespeare’s foreigners might be influenced by the emotions to which they give utterance. How might the articulation of certain emotions also help mark these characters as foreign?”

Jonathan Gil Harris is Professor of English at Ashoka University. He was formerly Professor at George Washington University, where he had taught since 2003. Prior to that,he held positions at Ithaca College, New York, and the University of Auckland in New Zealand. A past recipient of fellowships from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he has also served as Associate Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly since 2005. Professor Harris is the author of five books including Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Literary Theory, and Marvellous Repossessions: The Tempest, Globalization, and the Waking Dream of Paradise. He is also the editor of the third New Mermaids edition of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday; Placing Michael Neill: Issues of Place in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama; and Indography: Writing the “Indian” in Early Modern England. He is currently working on a book project called Becoming Indian, which considers poor European travellers to India in the seventeenth century – servants, soldiers, masterless men – who to lesser and greater extents became Indian, and whose elusive lives suggest the outlines of alternative Indo-European histories that potentially unsettle modern conceptions of bodies, race, and foreignness. He is now based in New Delhi.

Dr Jennifer Clement is Lecturer in English Literature in the University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies and Art History. Her research covers several areas including early modern literature and religion, adaptation studies, women’s writing – especially the writing of Elizabeth I – and education. She recently finished a book manuscript entitled Reading Humility in Early Modern England, which argues for the importance of humility in sixteenth and seventeenth century English culture, and explores a range of texts from the period that engage with humility as a virtue, a trope, and, at times, a problem. She has published articles on Elizabeth I’s writing and on her afterlife in eighteenth century drama, on Shakespeare and adaptation, and on book history. She has also begun to work on a book-length project on the fundamental importance of the passions to the construction of early modern sermons. Currently she teaches the Introduction to Shakespeare course at UQ, and courses on early modern literature and discovery, and on revenge narratives.