On Friday, February 18th, the Literature Track hosted a pre-show event in conjunction with the Manhattan Arts Center’s production of The Book of Will.
First staged in 2018 and written by Laurie Gunderson, The Book of Will shows how friendship, not scholarship, motivated Shakespeare’s actor-friends to gather all his plays into a single collection seven years after his death — thus creating the “Shakespeare” that we know and love today.
The “#Shakespeare After Shakespeare” event featured five, seven-minute presentations on the afterlife and legacy of Shakespeare by English department faculty and graduate students.
As the highlights below reveal, these talks provide insights into the Bard behind The Book of Will, as well as how he has shaped English literature and still influences contemporary authors today.
Each new age paid its homage to Shakespeare’s genius as dramatist by adapting, cutting, adding to, jiggering in various ways his plots, his characters, and especially his language, suiting them to the tastes of its audiences, and the critical canons of its time. The later seventeenth century provides a striking example. A rigid regime of neoclassical critical principles and class-based social decorum resulted in an artificial and attenuated range of human emotion and action being represented on the stage, with persistent simplification of language in the name of “correctness.” Shakespeare’s plays held the stage throughout the later seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, but they did so in “improved” versions, such as those by the leading writer and critic of the Restoration Period, John Dryden. So manifold are the resources of the original texts that in every age Shakespeare’s works invite revisiting, and tinkering to dress them up to flatter our expectations — and so extraordinarily rich are those works, they survive the process, which at its best sends us back to ponder the originals again, to marvel at their resiliency, resonance, and multeity — sends us back to reflect on what we have been given by Mr. Heminge and Mr. Condell’s Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Published according to the True Original Copies.
— Michael Donnelly, Associate Professor Emeritus, “Traducing Shakespeare: How Every Age Makes the Bard Their Own”
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” (Rom. Prologue 5-6): These lines from the prologue of Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet are the source of a phrase used to describe a fated romantic pairing. In my presentation, I discussed the cultural resonance of Shakespeare’s works and how young adult authors have been inspired by Shakespearean archetypes of tragic love. I began by briefly tracing the origins of Romeo and Juliet, focusing on how Shakespeare drew from both classical tradition and earlier Italian literature. The next part of my presentation focused on defining young adult fiction and explaining how YA authors have employed themes of tragic romance to explore social issues prevalent in the United States. I discussed Jacqueline Woodson’s 1998 novel If You Come Softly, a story about love between two teenagers from different backgrounds. Woodson’s narrative explores the difficulty of romantic relationships that occur across social boundaries, but also concentrates on the beauty of first love. If You Come Softly, and other works of YA fiction, demonstrate the many ways in which Shakespeare’s works have continued to be re-adapted and re-imagined.
— Natalie Liptak (M.A. ‘23), “Star-Crossed Lovers & Social Strife: Shakespearean Influences in American Adolescent Literature”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play that voices tremendous uncertainties about the afterlife. While these uncertainties may seem “unchristian” and “unbiblical,” my talk explores how Ecclesiastes, one of the Old Testament wisdom books, likely influenced Hamlet’s death anxieties, especially in the “to be” speech. My talk situates Shakespeare’s engagement with this biblical text within the context of his culture and demonstrates how Hamlet challenges the orthodox interpretation of Ecclesiastes that was prominent during Shakespeare’s lifetime.
— Anne-Sophie Tooley (M.A. ’22), “The Influence of Ecclesiastes on Hamlet’s Death Anxieties”
My talk examined The Book of Will’s theme of loss, including death, thievery, and lost art. I observed that Lauren Gunderson’s play depicted a historically accurate, if partial, picture of the hit-or-miss survival rate for early modern plays. More plays from the age of Shakespeare have been lost than have survived — as many as 744 plays lost, according to David McInnis’s Shakespeare and Lost Plays (2021). And factors leading to loss were numerous, with archival evidence showing that early plays were sometimes eaten by mice, sunk in shipwrecks, or stolen by actors. Shakespeare’s acting troupe, the King’s Men, were not immune from these types of dangers to texts, making the players’ preservation of Shakespeare’s collected works (the First Folio) even more remarkable.
— Kara Northway (Associate Professor), “‘That’s what I hate most, the thievery of it’: Loss, Perception, and Heart in The Book of Will”
My talk presented a brief history of folio collections of literary works begins with Ben Jonson’s 1616 “Works”— a term considered more prestigious than the ephemerality of plays, which like Shakespeare’s smaller “Quarto” editions would even appear without authors being listed on title pages. Jonson’s title page emphasized its non-ephemerality with its classical architectural frontispiece, not inviting the reader choose readings but to bow to their genres. With Shakespeare’s 1623 folio, emphasizing personal choice of genres, we have the serious place of the author-centered book, in a high-status engraving. The very next folio of 1630 combines ephemeral literature (pamphlets, nonsense verse, odes to a launderess) with a title page monumental setting, but also the elevation of its author, John Taylor the “Water-Poet” as announced famous for being famous in publishing his “All the Workes,” even including an ephemeral, two-by-two inch “Thumb Bible” in 1616.
(Note: To see the exhibit featured in the talk, please visit the Manhattan Arts Center.)
— Don Hedrick (Professor), “Little Books and Big: Size Mattering”
These TED-style talks are available for viewing on the K-State English Department’s YouTube channel.
If you haven’t had the chance to watch The Book of Will, you can still purchase tickets on the Manhattan Arts Center’s website.
— Shirley Tung, Associate Professor and Interim Literature Track Head