On a sunny spring afternoon at The University of Texas at Austin, you may happen to see college students rehearsing Shakespeare in one of the courtyards on the south mall. “Shakespeare Through Performance” is a class that combines textual analysis with performance, and then publicly performs on the stage in historic Winedale, about an hour outside of Austin. This year, the spring course is performing Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Two Noble Kinsmen. Both plays deal with the question of love versus friendship, a theme throughout Shakespeare’s work.
Professor James Loehlin is Shakespeare at Winedale Regents Professor of English and director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program, and he has taught the spring course for the past decade. When he first discovered Shakespeare, what excited him most was the power and accessibility of the story. Shakespeare is continually relevant, and studying it, he says, “does teach humanity, it does teach seeing things from a point of view other than your own, and seeing every problem from multiple points of view. I think that’s another reason that Shakespeare has remained valuable, 400 years after his death.”
Loehlin notes that “our access to Shakespearean texts is always mediated through print. We don’t have access to manuscripts that might tell us, by whose handwriting is whose, who wrote which part. We don’t have direct access to what was performed and how the text came together. We’re dependent on the early print versions, such as those in the Harry Ransom Center’s collection, and then we have to make our best guess from those. Performance invariably serves as a kind of interpreter of the text.” Approaching Shakespeare for performance was especially valuable for senior Jonathan Vineyard, whose interest in Shakespeare developed in a college class. “Before then, I didn’t understand Shakespeare’s value, because it had been taught to me as just a weirdly written novel. But Shakespeare wrote for performance, and keeping that in mind lets you understand his work.” “There’s no perfect, exact performance of a given Shakespeare play that has some sort of authenticity,” Loehlin adds. “One text can yield many different performances that are of equal legitimacy.”
For many scholars, like those in the Winedale program, the idea of a “pure” version of Shakespeare makes no sense, and that truth lets the intellect and creativity of the director and actors shine. “The texts as we have them then are a little bit uncertain,” explains Loehlin. “Even if you go back to the earliest printed version of any given play, there’ll be lines in it that probably contain mistakes of some kind, and I’m not someone who says, ‘Oh, you have to use the first folio and use exactly what is says.’ But I am quite happy to take the advice of subsequent editors if something really does seem to be wrong, or to conflate different texts to find variants that make more sense. And I always finally make decisions based on what’s going to serve the performance best.” Senior Kenneth Williams, a Winedale alum, plays Palamon in Kinsmen. “I love seeing the transition of Shakespeare on the page to Shakespeare on the stage,” says Williams. “The text gives us so many possibilities for varying performance choices. Why not rehearse a scene five times each time with a different goal in mind? That same scene performed five different ways creates a different impact for the world of the play.”
Sometimes it’s necessary to abridge Shakespeare’s plays for performance. This semester, Loehlin left Two Gents unabridged, and cut several hundred lines from Two Noble Kinsmen, the longer of the two plays. He has no qualms about abridging, as long as it’s done with intention and respect for the original text. “We think, probably, they were abridged for performance in Shakespeare’s time. There’s evidence from some quarto versions that suggest cuts were made for stage performance, so I don’t feel terrible doing it, because I think it’s always been a part of the production process. And especially at Winedale in the summer, when you’re performing under conditions that are not always the most comfortable for either the audience or the performers, you don’t want to do plays that are four hours long.” A new set of challenges faces Loehlin and the class as they rehearse for their performances at Winedale in late April. The class will have to make some significant performance decisions, both for staging logistics and interpretive choices.
Sophomore Elizabeth Hamm plays Hippoltya in Kinsmen. When the cast lists were revealed, she was excited to imagine how her friends would embody and interpret their roles. “That’s something studying Shakespeare at Winedale has taught me: when you immerse yourself completely in literature, you can become more fully yourself. Performance, specifically, is an act of love for our audiences as well as for the text of our two plays. Sharing a story is giving a gift. And sharing a story that we’ve interpreted in our own way, with our own imaginations, is a way of sharing ourselves.”
Learn more about the complexity of the Shakespearean text and the many options of interpretation when Loehlin and students from Shakespeare at Winedale visit the Ransom Center for a lecture on Tuesday, April 19, at 4 p.m. This program is part of our current exhibition Shakespeare in Print and Performance.