Talking With the UA's Experts on Shakespeare

Feb. 11, 2016

It is difficult to imagine the dearth in our artistic, social and cultural understandings and interactions if not for the contributions of William Shakespeare.

To commemorate Shakespeare's global contributions and the 400-year anniversary of his death, the Folger Shakespeare Library selected the University of Arizona as a host institution for "First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare." From Feb. 15 to March 15, the UA campus and community at large will be able to experience the 1623 First Folio in person, while also engaging in a suite of other campus events. UA-sponsored event details are available online.

Anticipating the arrival of the First Folio, we spoke to three UA experts about the man deemed the most famous dramatist and playwright in the world to discuss their affinity for Shakespeare's work. They also imagined the type of person he may have been and how our lives have been enriched thanks to his works.

Our panel is:

  • Brent Gibbs, an associate professor in the UA School of Theatre, Film & Television, who also serves as artistic director and certified fight director for the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre.
  • Jessica Maerz, an assistant professor in the UA School of Theatre, Film & Television, whose research is focused on film adaptations of Shakespeare's works.
  • Meg Lota Brown, a UA English professor, who has authored numerous books and articles on Shakespeare, Reformation politics and Renaissance literature.

Jessica Maerz contributed to "Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century," and she regularly teaches Shakespeare in the classroom. Maerz recently authored a book on Kenneth Branagh’s interpretations of Shakespeare, forthcoming in 2017. (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)

Q: Based on the things that Shakespeare wrote, who do you think he was, in character?

Gibbs: He was deep, I can tell you that. He was incredibly compassionate. Even in his most evil characters — the people who are just irredeemable — he finds the humanity in them. Nobody’s a cardboard cutout. I think that’s a huge gift, and it takes an empathetic soul.

Brown: I think he was incredibly smart. Jaw-droppingly smart. He was willing to roll up his sleeves and go anywhere, and, in that respect, he was extraordinarily intellectually capacious.

Maerz: Shakespeare is the kind of guy I would love to spend an evening in the pub with — like, for real. He’s clearly funny, he also has a way with words — which is something that I just find charming anyhow — clearly understands how to one-up somebody in dialogue and, again, the guy tells a great story. Can you just imagine some of the things he might be able to tell you? I would like to think that he would be the life of the party.

Brent Gibbs (seated) is directing two Shakespeare plays at the UA this spring, "The Tempest" and "The Comedy of Errors," using one set and one cast. (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)

Q: Why do you like Shakespeare?

Gibbs: Because I’ve spent the last 20 years working on Shakespeare shows, I’ve grown to have a great appreciation for the artistry with which he did his work, the beauty of his creations, the timelessness of the things he has to say about life and what it means to be human, and the way he encapsulates — in a very brief way — these large ideas that we all wrestle with. Those are the things that I find interesting about Shakespeare.

Maerz: I was a junior in high school in 1989 when Kenneth Branagh’s "Henry V" film came out and I went to see it in the theaters. I was blown away. That film made that story feel so immediate and raw in a way that made me feel like, “This is a story being told for me,” and that started a weird little love affair. I went to college, majored in literature, took all of the Shakespeare courses I could possibly handle, and that’s really when I figured out what I loved about Shakespeare.

Brown: Every time I teach (Shakespeare works), they are new and infinite and exciting. The texts always change. They never seem stale or too familiar. People are complicated, and Shakespeare was very good at exploring the three-dimensionality of people.

Q: What can these First Folio plays, which are hundreds of years old, offer to a contemporary audience?

Gibbs: It’s important for us to understand different points of view. At this particular point in time in the history of the world, I think that’s a really great thing that Shakespeare can do for us. He gives us a broad spectrum of experience and characters, and he allows us to … appreciate what all of them bring to the table.

Maerz: These plays are incredibly time-bound documents in their way, responding to a very particular historical moment and method of writing and performing plays. Some of the jokes in Shakespeare’s comedies just aren’t funny anymore. Who is really going to get a good belly laugh out of aqua vitae jokes? So I think we have to look beyond some of that. Shakespeare was really just an incredible storyteller.

Gibbs: Shakespeare has had a profound effect in the way that he helped us look at the world and ourselves, and I don’t even know if that can be measured.

Q: Can someone who has no formal training in Shakespeare enjoy his work?

Brown: I do. Although reading his language on the page might feel remote to some people, and therefore alienating, contemporary productions of Shakespeare — even when the language isn’t modernized — are very popular.

Maerz: Yeah, absolutely. I spent a couple years working as a camp counselor at a summer camp for kids 8 to 18 in Maine. Within a two-week time period, these kids would audition for, be cast in, get off book for, rehearse and then perform a Shakespeare play. This really helped me to understand that we think Shakespeare is hard because at some point in that range of 8 to 18, we get told that he’s hard and that we’re not supposed to understand him and that it is high culture, only for a certain kind of people. But those tiny little kids didn’t come into that experience with that engrained into them and, as a result, they had an easier time than the bigger kids did. The younger kids absorbed and knew the lines better than the older kids because they didn’t know that they weren’t supposed to get it yet. I think we’re doing something in that 10-year period that teaches us that it’s not for everyone, when that’s certainly not the way it was conceived.

Q: Without the First Folio, this collection of famous plays would be wiped out of history. Can you imagine a world without these stories?

Maerz: It’s hard to think about the canon without the plays in the Folio. Obviously, I think it would be a loss for Western culture. It would be very dissatisfying.

Brown: It would be a less rich world, certainly.

Gibbs: The world would be so much poorer without Shakespeare. Our understanding of what it means to be human would be so much poorer if we didn’t have these First Folio plays.

Meg Lota Brown is an expert in the social and historical contexts of Shakespeare’s women and how the playwright both generates and subverts his culture’s assumptions about gender. (Photo: John de Dios/UANews)