On April 14, 2016, Old Dominion University (ODU) opened its week-long celebration of Shakespeare with its public event “Shakespeare 400 Years After.” Convening the event was Dr. Imtiaz Habib, a professor in the English department at ODU. Impassioned by the influence Shakespeare had on his pursuing a career in the humanities, Habib opened the event by reflecting on why we continue to hold Shakespeare dear today, especially in Virginia: he provides the ever-important human lens for understanding the world around us.
We have shared his full remarks below.
Honorable Director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts, President Broderick, Provost Chandra Desilva, esteemed guests, and our distinguished national and international scholars, a very warm welcome to all of you to ODU’s public event “Shakespeare 400 Years After.” I want to quote some lines from a play that you may find interesting:
You’ll put down strangers,/
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,/
And lead the majesty of law in lyam/
To slip him like a hound. Alas, alas! Say now the King/
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,/
Should so much come too short of your great trespass/
As but to banish you: whither would you go?/
What country, by the nature of your error,/
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,/
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,/
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England:/
Why, you must needs be strangers.
These lines that have long been regarded as the only surviving sample of William Shakespeare’s handwriting were penned by the playwright as one of several revisions for a play that was never performed on the bare boards of the raucous popular English theater for which he and his colleagues wrote, four centuries ago. The context is popular resentment at the many “stranger” (immigrant) refugees fleeing from persecution in the low countries in Europe, that Henry VIII has admitted to English residency. The play may have been occasioned by a government attempt to dissuade, diffuse and pacify the rising tide of resentment against foreigners given privileges in a time of dearth in London in the 1590s. The word “stranger” was, in Elizabeth dramatic usage and in the quotation’s context, an uprooted, homeless, unknown, person.
This item was recently reported in a BBC release in connection with an exhibition that was to be shown in London in April on the occasion of Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary. I wish to borrow this announcement, and the quotation it contains, to remind ourselves, at this inaugural reception of ODU’s public event “Shakespeare 400 Years After,” of the eerily intimate relationship we bear with Shakespeare in our midst even today. For this year and this month obliges us to take stock once again of what does this icon mean for us today, an ubiquitous figure, an ever-present name, a fixed cultural reference point, that we can neither simply disown nor easily embrace in our own seemingly different world.
Why four centuries ago the Elizabethan authorities would draw in the popular theater to address a political situation, and how Shakespeare in particular could became part of such an enterprise, as well as why the BBC today would highlight the Shakespearean involvement in a political situation four centuries ago to echo the troubled situation of our own historical moment, are questions that lead directly to the uses to which we unhesitatingly put Shakespeare today. The underlying theme of the lines and of the play itself through its multiple revisions, is the sinfulness of disobeying the King, and which is a perennial note in the media releases of the Tudor government throughout the sixteenth century. The theme is part of creating a political and cultural credo that the populace can and should believe in, and in that, what should be a cornerstone of their normative way of life, in short of their civic development.
Shakespeare’s deployment in this enterprise is merely a precursor of the utilization of his works as the cultural text of England subsequently through the various increasingly showcased publications of his works, starting from the First Folio produced by his theater colleagues Hemminge and Condell in 1623 to the anthology produced by Edmund Malone at the end of the eighteenth century, and succeeded by the “authoritative” Variorum editions that emerged from the nineteenth century to the present time. Through this trajectory of compilations the prestige of Shakespeare’s writing grew, in deliberate and subtle degrees, to become the life-book of the West, and in the West’s late twentieth century’s globalist reach, of the entire world. Begun first as a showpiece of English culture, Shakespeare became under the auspices of the English colonial empire the fount of modern civilization itself.
As a premier world wide media outlet, the BBC’s news item highlighting the contemporary relevance of Shakespeare’s lines from The Book of Thomas More is thus just a reiteration of the claim of Shakespeare’s status as the master cultural icon of our world, the acceptable and to-be-sought after face of modernity itself. And so it is that, from elementary school to graduate school to academia and the research library, from the highest corridors of power to the barroom, coffee shop and the myriad walk ways of everyday life, we weave and wear the Shakespeare badge, loudly or mildly as the situation calls for, in pride or in anger as our particular dispositions and experiences prompt us.
Admittedly, our own event, in all of its spectacular glitter, is also implicated in this compulsive dissemination of Shakespeare as a cultural asset. Yet, our’s is also a claim with a particular “local habitation” and two-edged ambition. We “take our cue” and “set our scene” in Virginia, here forty, miles or so from where–not Shakespeare but the people of his world–landed, in a project that was conceived, implemented and financed by people with whom he was in close contact, such as the Earls of Southampton and Pembroke, two of his documented patrons and the two preeminent advocates of the Virginia plantation, Richard Hakluyt the most indefatigable proponent of early modern English overseas plantations, William Strachey the neighbor of Shakespeare in Blackfriars who went on, as a member of the second Virginia settlers, to write the account of the settlement that was to become one of the most commonly invoked sources of Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Shakespeare’s circle of acquaintances who were involved in the Virginia project also included some of the most distinguished Elizabethan and Stuart patronesses of poetry, Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, Lucy, the Countess of Bedford, and Penelope Devereaux/ Rich, whose husband Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick, was a key figure in the Virginia enterprise from its inception. Not only were these personalities paying donors to the project, so were a descending hierarchy of English gentry and commoners all of whom not only spoke the same language as Shakespeare did but lived the lives Shakespeare portrays in his writings.
That arrival in Jamestown of the people of Shakespeare’s world set in motion the complex events that produced Virginia and America itself, and us, and it’s impact is physically inscribed in the place names of the Virginia and neighboring coastlines even today, such as in the names of Warwick, and Gloucester counties, the names of the cities of Hampton, Suffolk, and Norfolk, and in the name of our state itself (echoing the Virgin Queen cult that Elizabeth created for herself) as well as that of Delaware from Thomas West, Baron De La Warre, Jamestown Governor from 1610.
Our claim in the Shakespearean badge of life from the arrival of his world here four hundred years ago is to claim the cultural high asset of that badge, certainly, but also to claim it for ALL of us—Virginians, Americans, and people of the world in which we were born, in ALL of our irrepressible variety in the high and the humble walks of life that we tread, in all that we do for a gainful and meaningful existence here and now. Our claim is to make the high Shakespearean icon talk to each of us whoever we are, wherever we are, and in whatever ways of being we find solace, and to hold that icon accountable if it does not or cannot. For such, we believe, is the undeniable obligation of cultural icons and of all art.
If the Shakespearean legacy has been handed down to us, we need to ask what has that legacy made us today? The Shakespeare that we want to remember is not the perfect poet and ultimate human being, the great God of Victorian bardolatory, but the imperfect writer, whose works struggle between the glory and the venality of the human, between the Othello’s and the Iagos, the Coriolanus’s and the Aufidius’s, the Cordelia’s and the Gonerils of Shakespeare’s dramatic lives, that are the cues for OUR struggles, with the generosities and the cruelties, the compassions and the bigotries, the enlightenment and the ignorance, of OUR own lives. These struggles of Shakespeare’s world are the images of the struggles of our OWN flawed world. It is this that is the stamp of the Shakespearean world on us, it is this that becomes the hallmark of the skeptical, despairing hopefulness of our modernity. This much we ask of the Shakespearean master icon, nothing more nothing less.
To know and value the range and the limits of our humanity, our own strengths and weaknesses, these of course are also the charges that the Humanities as a disciplinary branch of knowledge carry. In an increasingly business and technology oriented world Humanities studies may seem to be strange irrelevancies. In a growing culture of training- and job oriented learning, the Arts, literature, history, the social sciences, may seem to be unaffordable luxuries. The economic downturn of the last several years may have given such claims a particular plausibility in public discourse, in ways direct and discreet. But we need to ask, what is the price, the dollar value, of the human, for, beyond the human, what exists or can exist for us? What can tell us of who we are, what can remind us what we have become and are becoming, beneath our proud titles, beneath the arrogance of our material accomplishments, beneath the pomp of our successes and prosperity? And, how priceless is the knowledge of the boundlessness and the limits of our own humanity, the awareness of all that we can be but are not, yet?
If interpretation is the basic instrument of intelligent life, and if interpretation is what Literature, the Arts, the Humanities fundamentally do, then it is the Humanities that can best decipher the world for us, and guide us to a life that is meaningfully, soulfully productive, rather than being only materially so. What prosperity can there be, what job growth, what career satisfaction, without the passion and it’s stifled or articulated expression that together is the intrinsic signature of the human? So it is with the claim of the intimate relevance and need of the Humanities (here with the faceplate of Shakespeare and cultural studies), for the business of life, with the claim of Humanities Studies as the tool kit of the map of experience itself, that we present to you our public event, “Shakespeare 400 Years After.” In making this claim we are asking for a reinforcement of the commitment to, and actual investment of material resources in, the dissemination of Humanities studies by institutions of higher learning and government agencies in our state, and across the country.
Our journey to this evening has been long and arduous. From the Fall of 2013, when we first conceived our project, until now, we have climbed unending mountains of difficulty, not just in terms of scarce material resources but also in terms of our own persistent doubts and uncertainties about the sanity of our endeavor. Yet, across our campus and beyond there were those whose conviction in the value of what we were trying to bring about never wavered. Our debts, as you can see, are many, and more than what I can individually name. But some among them I cannot but pronounce tonight. President John Broderick’s gracious blessings enabled our project to move forward and for that we are grateful. The unstinting generosity, steady support and wise guidance of Chandra DeSilva, Acting Provost, exceeded our expectations, and we can say without hesitation, this project could not have happened without him. To him and his office we owe more than what we can describe. Assistant Vice President for Community Engagement Karen Meier, gave bountifully to our cause above and beyond what we asked for, and this event, and especially this evening, are directly her gifts. We are also thankful for the support of Rusty Waterfield, Associate Vice President for University Services , Morris Foster Vice President for Research, Robert Wojtowicz Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Studies, Dean Charles Wilson, Dean David Metzger and, Professor Dana Heller Chair of English, all of whose financial generosities, and manifold encouragements were crucial for keeping alive our enterprise when it was floundering. Elizabeth Kersey Assistant to the President for Local, State and Federal Governmental Regulations, Robert Grandon, Special Events Manager for Transportation and Parking Services, and Victoria Burke Director of University Publications, gave us vital help in areas in which we were helpless, and we are happy to remember them tonight.
Beyond ODU, we are delighted that the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, has declared April as the Shakespeare week, and that the Virginia Legislative Assembly has followed suit. Also elsewhere in the state we have been helped greatly by Margaret Vanderhye, the Director of the Virginia Commission for the Arts and our chief guest tonight, by her total investment in and strong advocacy of our project in Richmond, Robert Vaughan and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities for their early and steady publicity of our event, Kathryn Lebert of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities for her tireless series of electronic articles showcasing our event, and Professor Hank Dobin of Washington and Lee University, who despite having a Shakespeare event of his own extended his backing to our endeavor in many vital ways.
Additionally I would like to present, the Planning Committee of the “ Shakespeare 400 Years After” public event in proud acknowledgment of the long, hard, self- sacrificial work they did, in putting together what we are presenting to this week. They are Katherine Hammond;.Drew Lopenzina,; Delores Phillips; Elizabeth C. Black; Cullen Strawn; Mary Porter-Troupe; Peter Eudenbach.; Jackie Stein,; Renee Olander; Brian Nedvin,; Andrey Kasparov; Luisa Igloria; Marilyn Marloff; Thomas Yuill;.Patrick Farrell; Jessica Dambrusch; Princess Perry; and Richard Green. What our volunteer student research and logistics team has done cannot ever be fully compensated. They are: Megan Mize, Ashley Barnett, Judah Lamar; Kelsey Vint; Violet Strawderman, Patricia Anderson, Paryn Grody, Carlene Bennett-Klein, Carla Thisse, Rachel O’Keefe, Martina Fortin, and Justin Hogan. Especial and particular thanks go to Kelsey Vint for the inhuman amount work she did at great personal cost and sacrifice to herself, without despair or complaint. She has been a humbling inspiration to us all. We also sincerely thank the many other student volunteers who you will meet throughout this week in the different locations of our event, and who will assist you in your various needs. Please join me in giving them all a rousing ovation.
Once again I welcome you all to our “Shakespeare 400 Years After Event.”