Thursday, May 29, 2014

Adventures in Thesis Land, Part One

...In which I briefly recap what I've learned so far in the hopes it will help me find an argument.

Subject: Shakespeare in Virginia in the Civil War
Topic: Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III (and others, briefly) in Richmond in the Civil War.
Predicate: ?
Object: ?  Something about cultural heritage and historical preservation, maybe.

What I'd originally hoped to be able to argue was that Southerners were using Shakespeare's regicidal tragedies as a way of expressing their frustration with Lincoln, the North, etc.  That just doesn't seem to be the case, however.  They needed no such subtle method of complaining about Lincoln; they used satire and did that outright (especially in an original piece entitled The Royal Ape).

What I know was happening is that they were performing Macbeth (often), Richard III (regularly), and Hamlet (semi-regularly).  Romeo & Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew were also performed occasionally in Richmond during the war.  Curiously (or perhaps not?), there were zero performances of Shakespeare's works during the last months of the war, January-April 1865, and only a few during the beginning months, April-December 1861.

The plays, especially Richard III, were probably not the "true and originall copies," or even anything close to that.  Richard was Coley Cibber's version, Hamlet was probably David Garrick's version (in which Hamlet dies, but Laertes lives to rule Denmark with Fortinbras.  It's hilariously awful).

There was no shortage of comedy on the Richmond stages, but it mostly came from non-Shakespearean sources.  AYLI was performed four times, and all times dismissed by the papers as being quite bad.  Shrew was performed semi-regularly, usually under some variation of the title "Katherine and Petruccio."  Plays were almost always followed by a farcical after piece or two, and people stayed at the theatre from 7pm until midnight.  

The tercentennial of Shakespeare's birth took place toward the end of the Civil War, in 1864.  I've found no record of any celebration thereof in Richmond, though I imagine it must have been marked in some way.  It was celebrated with much ado worldwide, and accounts abound of celebrations in Germany, New York, Stratford, London, and elsewhere.  Still on the hunt for Virginia, or, failing that, Augusta or Charleston.

Shakespeare received more productions in Richmond during the war than any other author.  (I imagine this is probably still true, in most places, today.  Homeboy was prolific.)  But nationwide, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Richard III were the most popular plays during the war.  Richmond is not an anomaly there.

So.  What can I learn from all this?  Where's my argument?  

My thesis adviser keeps saying it's not about what Shakespeare meant, but about what Shakespeare was doing for audiences during the war.  I agree, but I can't see any argument here that would be specific to Shakespeare instead of to theatre in general.  One paper in 1863 said this:  "If people must be amused sometimes, listening to the poetry of Shakespeare is certainly better amusement than bluff, poker, and rotgut whiskey."  I agree, though I doubt if I can turn that into a 50-page argument.

For three weeks, my adviser told us that "this is a thing" is NOT an argument.  And he's right.  But right now, "this is a thing" is about all I've got, and I'm getting nervous that I need to start writing in eight weeks and I don't yet have anything more concrete.  (And yes, I realize how ridiculous I sound since I have EIGHT WEEKS before my self-imposed date of beginning composition.  But as I'm losing five weeks of research and reading to travel and workshops, eight weeks away feels a lot more like three weeks away.)

Man.  Where's my friend Marshall when I need him?  He's always good at talking me off the ledge and helping me figure things out.  I know there's an argument there somewhere.  I just know it.

1 comment:

Ellen Margolis said...

"what Shakespeare was doing for audiences during the war. I agree, but I can't see any argument here that would be specific to Shakespeare instead of to theatre in general." So what was the other theatre? Was it in verse? If it was mostly comedy, what need did those specific Shakespeare tragedies fill? Was it about the fall of leaders? Was it about the contrast of public life and private life?
About self-doubt???

Just spitballin' with ya--