Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


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My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shakespeare's birthday

Just a short, self-indulgent post today in honor of Shakespeare's 445th birthday: I'm an early modernist by training, and so I feel obligated to post!

In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley declared the day to be "Talk Like Shakespeare Day" city-wide, a funny idea since, one imagines, that must mostly have meant saying things like verily and thou and adding -th to the end of verbs. As one colleague put it, trying to talk like Shakespeare is likely to make a person sound a bit like the Thor of Marvel Comics: "Verily, they have eyes but seeth not!"

Here in Champaign-Urbana, I didn't hear anyone talking like Shakespeare. But I did attend a nice little birthday party in honor of the day that was put on by our superb rare books library, a fabulous resource for scholars of early modern literature (among a great many other things). We're famous especially for the Milton collection. But we also have really significant Elizabethan holdings, at the core of which is a collection once owned by the great Shakespearean scholar T. W. Baldwin. People sipped coffee, declaimed sonnets, performed soliloquies, and in one memorable instance, sang a version of one of Ophelia's snippets of song. It being a birthday party, there was cake. Verily!


Rob Barrett said...

I know you're not a hardcore comics fan, Curtis, but I wanted to tell you that I was impressed by your Thor page grab: I don't think you could have found a more representative instance of Shakespearean English a la Stan Lee.

Jack Morgan said...

I like the idea of people walking around talking like Thor. I remember when the city did this talking like Shakespeare day, and certain people at the American Shakespeare Center hated the idea because it made Shakespeare's language seem foreign when we're all about showing people how it's not.
Have you ever heard of any better way to celebrate Shakespeare's Birthday though?

Curtis said...

I take the point about not wanting to make Shakespeare's language seem foreign, though I guess in general I like to foster a double perspective in which Shakespeare seems by turns familiar and strange.

I thought the rare books room celebration was nice--just having people read/recite passages aloud. And cake. You could have a free performance in the park, or bring actors in to declaim their favorite speeches and talk about what they like in them.

Or have scholars talk about the appeal of the plays/poems in non-specialized ways (I had a great time once giving a talk on Shakespearean tragedy to middle school students in Arizona--it can be a real pleasure to step outside of the academy and to discuss why interesting things are interesting).

Jack Morgan said...

My current issue with Shakespeare's birthday is that some parties seem to focus entirely on kids' activities, while others gear themselves toward old people or intelligencia. It's either mocking Shakespeare to some degree or taking it way too seriously. I love what you said about talking about why interesting things are interesting, but that's not for ten-year-olds, is it? How much should a Shakespeare birthday party be targeted? Who should we include or exclude? We're brainstorming here at ASC because we want to have the best birthday party we've ever had. Any ideas are welcome.

Curtis said...

No, pro'ly not for ten year olds. Though I did wind up talking about violence and rivalry in Hamlet to middle school students! I had been told to expect high-school age students at an assembly at a private, carter school with a liberal arts focus, but then when I showed up the whole school was there. Basically, for ten-year-olds, I might just stage the mechanicals from the end of AMND.

Universities don't have to wrestle with the audience problem in the same way--we just aim to please our students and maybe alums.

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