Rob Carson

The Bard in Conversation

by Associate Professor of English Rob Carson

When people write about Shakespeare in newspapers and on websites, they tend to use extraneous capital letters. They use terms like “Poet” and “Genius” to describe him, and they frequently refer to him as “The Bard.” What these capital letters imply, I think, is the idea that Shakespeare was not just someone who was quite good at his job, but someone who was almost superhuman, larger than life, one-of-a-kind. Personally, I tend to balk whenever I see hyperbolic terms of this sort applied to Shakespeare, as do most other Shakespeare scholars these days. It’s not that we’re not Shakespeare fans—we did choose this profession for a reason! It’s just that we tend to be uncomfortable with the idea that Shakespeare ought to be placed in a class by himself, on a different level from other mere mortals.

This vision of Shakespeare as a “Genius” dates back to the early nineteenth century, when the Romantic poets (who admittedly enjoyed their capital letters) started envisioning him as the archetypal Poet, someone who drew Inspiration from Nature as he crafted Works of Art, most likely in solitude off in some rural cottage or private grotto. But of course the historical Shakespeare was nothing like this. He spent the bulk of his career as an actor working amidst the bustle of London in the burgeoning Elizabethan entertainment industry, and he wrote most of his plays as part of an acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later renamed “the King’s Men”). Everything we know about this acting company suggests that it was a highly collaborative venture: the eight partners in the company were typically referred to as “sharers” and “fellows,” and all eight of them not only acted in performances but also contributed to running the company in a variety of other ways. Shakespeare’s contributions to the company that he co-owned included writing some of the scripts that they performed and also revising scripts that they acquired from other playwrights and other companies. Increasingly, Shakespeare scholars are willing to acknowledge that many of the plays we attribute to “Shakespeare” were actually collaborations, written in conjunction with John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, George Wilkins, Thomas Nashe, and others.

But of course all plays are in an important sense collaborative. After Shakespeare completed a script, his company would bring it to life in space and in sound before a responsive crowd. Theatre only happens in this way, through the living interaction of actors and audience. It is surely notable that Shakespeare seems to have made no particular effort to publish his scripts or preserve them in any “final” form. We might reasonably suggest that this is because he imagined his real creations to be the plays in production, the collaborative work that he and his fellows engaged in, not the lifeless scripts that lay behind them. (It’s for the same reason that architects tend to be proud of their buildings rather than their blueprints.)

Of course, Shakespeare’s plays themselves are also primarily composed of conversations. For a long time, critics who studied Shakespeare tended to focus in particular on his monologues, especially the soliloquies. They took individual speeches by individual characters out of their dramatic context and read them as if they were self-contained poems hidden inside the plays. Anyone who has been to a play, though, knows that this gets things completely backwards, since dialogue is primarily what drives dramatic action. I am thus pleased to report that recent work on Shakespeare’s language has increasingly focused on his skill at writing conversations between characters, not just speeches for individuals.

The Shakespeare classes that I took as an undergraduate were mostly unidirectional affairs: a professor would stand at the front of the room and lecture at students—not entirely unlike the big floating head in The Wizard of Oz. The students would dutifully take notes and maybe ask the occasional question, but for the most part, we were passive spectators. I am so pleased that the culture of teaching at HWS doesn’t look anything like this, and that we instead emphasize class discussions and active learning for our students. Students in my Shakespeare classes engage with the plays that we study as a community, entering into dialogue with one another and with me as we collaborate collectively to make sense of these plays. In other words, we hold Conversations in our classes about the Conversations we find in plays which were in turn created by Conversations that were held some 400 years ago in London. And so if we’re going to capitalize any word connected to Shakespeare, my vote is for Conversation.

Associate Professor of English Rob Carson has published essays about Shakespeare and early modern skepticism, Shakespeare and early modern resistance theory, and Shakespeare and the linguistic turn in philosophy. He is currently completing revisions on his book, Every Third Thought: Shakespeare and the Early Modern Play of Ideas, and is working on two other book projects, Shakespeare and the New Elizabethans (which considers how Shakespeare was used to re-shape British identity in the years following World War II) and The Shakespeare Commons (which examines early modern forms of collectivity, communicative action and distributed cognition). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and his M.A. and B.A. from Queen’s University. Carson joined HWS in 2008.


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