Untitling Shakespeare: A Brief Biography of an Evolving Practice

Untitling Shakespeare: A Brief Biography of an Evolving Practice

Keynote Blackfriars Conference, November, 2023

American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, VA

©Keith Hamilton Cobb 2023

Blackfriars conference - keynote speaker Keith Hamilton CobbI have often been asked why I have never exhibited the desire to have children.  My answer has always been the same.  I never believed in those of humankind’s ability, whether it be physical, psycho-emotional, or hindered by external forces of all sorts, to make better human beings than themselves.  The species, in my observance, does not, for all intents and purposes, improve.  Its base proclivities have not changed in all the ages of its existence upon the Earth.  And I am no exception.  The planet does not need another me, caught up in cycles of indoctrination, systems of belief, driven largely by existential needs both real and imagined.  The paragon of animals is not a very good animal and it never was.  And I need not, perhaps absolutely should not, perpetuate a species which, if its cumulative strivings upon the globe are not a net destroyer, it seems to me that, in the best case, it blindly creates tragedy…comedy too.  But even these are subjective, owing to what the humans themselves were taught to see…or just as often, taught not to see.

Are these my judgments?  Very little, if anything, in the spaces that human beings create and wrangle in are not someone’s judgments.  Or the result of them.  There is no objective arbiter, and can never be.  We are all we have and all we’ve ever had.

The title of this talk is Untitling Shakespeare: A Brief Biography of an Evolving Practice.  As tends to happen, I was asked for the title months ago, before I had any real sense of what I wanted to speak on.  Happily, it’s fairly appropriate to what’s on my mind today, although I would have changed the word, “practice,” to “process.”  Untitling Shakespeare: A Brief Biography of an Evolving Process…  Because, as I think on it, a process, evolving out of a particular set of needs, precedes the practice of anything.  Potty training is a process.   The teaching of Shakespeare as literature and in performance is a process.  The same animals.  The same biological and cerebral functions.  Alter these processes, and you alter the practices.  Leave the processes unaltered and we can begin to thoughtlessly prescribe, to codify, to just do.  At that point, the processes simply happen, as if to us, like climate change, and we tend to ride along having lost the ability to recognize all of they ways we are complicit?

Untitling Shakespeare is not a methodology.  Not yet.  Rather, it seeks to organically evolve one that lends itself to the enhancement of both education and theater-making through the open-ended examination of Shakespeare’s texts by all interested parties.  For the ensemble of theater-makers trained to create characters in a tightly restricted frame of time and purpose, there is great value in having exposure to those from across diverse spectrums of ethnicity, gender, and discipline who’s perspectives on character, story and world are not prescribed by traditional theater-making pedagogy.  For students and educators, either of Shakespeare or of Theater, or Philosophy, or History, or of Poli-Sci, or any discipline that begins with the science of people, accompanying the actor on the deep dive into Shakespeare’s anthropological abyss uncovers insights into the intricacies of the human condition that underlie the texts.  These insights cannot be excavated by curriculum confined by the semester system.  For all engaged—and all with open hearts and minds interested in discovering what it means to be human are invited—it inspires by instilling a sense of intrinsic inclusion in a process of social change.  Not a product.  It is a process.

I’d like to share with you an excerpt from a book I’m attempting to compile about these evolving processes that perhaps will illustrate where this Untitling work began.  It began with Shakespeare’s Othello.  As you listen to me, I urge you to consider the proposition that what and how we teach our children manifests in the nature of everything we make.  And that it is something we just do.

When was the first time?  I can’t remember the year, I believe it was before I had graduated acting school, possibly before I had entered it.  A woman named Betty whose surname is lost in time was directing a community theater production of Othello in my Westchester County, New York community, and there was nary a Black actor to play…well, thinking on it with all that I understand now, we can’t really call him “the lead.”  I discern he rates no higher than “eponymous hero,” in most productions, and even “hero” is a potential misnomer.  There were plenty of Black people, most often gathered in the less affluent areas of the county.  But how many like me, of a family possessed perhaps of just enough above the requisite wealth that I might dare to contemplate a career in acting as a way to spend my money-earning years?  I was, at the time, barely old enough to have played the role of Othello’s son, even if you take into account that the early moderns had babies at earlier ages.  Nevertheless, the word was out that I was one among the community theater community of actors, and I was asked to undertake the role.  And what is there for a young, unlearnèd but indoctrinated, would-be thespian to do but to just do?  We stumbled around the play for a few weeks of week-day evenings with a coterie of the local community theater regulars.  The funny fella, who tended to chew scenery whether in character or in company, was Iago.  He would reincarnate throughout my life’s experience with Othello in production: the extravagant charismatic who runs off with the play while the eponymous hero appears too stupid to notice…  But I digress.  In our five minutes of table work, we discussed matters our director considered of moment, like what Iago might actually mean when he says, “I lay with Cassio lately,” she imagining she had come to focus on something of deep and enduring dramatic relevance…

Let me break from my excerpt here for a moment to center something I think salient in the Untitling process.  Iago says. “I lay with Cassio lately.”  Either they are two men engaged in a homosexual encounter, or they are two men sharing a mattress.  The first is a useless conceit that to introduce does nothing to advance the plot, and in fact tends rather to obscure it, and further which commentators have come to generally agree is not what Iago is saying.  They are inclined to comment less, however, on the other which is no less problematic in that it is simply another Shakespearean contrivance that will allow him to continue his narrative.  That is to say the author chooses to have Iago suggest that he lay in a bed with Cassio so that Cassio can then be purported to have had an erotic dream about Othello’s wife that Iago can then report first hand knowledge of.  The playwright does it again several lines later by having Othello collapse into a stupor for no particular reason of which we’ve been made aware simply to facilitate the opportunity for Iago to continue in his deft machinations, which would otherwise, if adhering to any degree of realism, be a much more difficult thing to achieve.  But who needed it?  Early modern dramas were rife with all manner of embarrassingly clumsy plot devices, and Shakespeare’s audience didn’t seem to mind at all.  They were desirous foremost for the story,  the narrative, irrespective of how illogical it was, and he was desirous to give it to them.  We know those people with an irrational desire to buy into the narrative that they believe most serves their sense of self.  We know them  because they are us.  Not just those people, but all of us.  And if we hope to disrupt the existential purgatory into which such simple acceptance has led and left us, it now falls to us to scrutinize not only the texts but ourselves, and to understand—before we go about mindlessly recycling Shakespeare in the classroom or upon the stage; that is to say perpetuating a practice—what story we are desirous of hearing, telling, and why.  Why are we doing this play?  Shakespeare, in the classroom and on the stage, evolves, perhaps transcends only when we do.  We are shown things in it, most strikingly ourselves, and learn things from it; insights into the grotesque humanity of the sublime human form and the terrifying reasonlessness of living that were never visible to us before.  This, us, and the development of a self-critical lens is at the heart of the Untitling process.

But back to my story…  I am human.  It is all about me…  While I didn’t have tools to formulate much of an opinion at that time, except of course those that had been handed to me by people perpetuating a practice, as I grew, and Othello remained in the ether, as it does for I dare say nearly every large Black male actor, I would come to develop a sensitivity to the many specious plot points in the play so obviously stuck there to further the action as the author had mapped it out towards an end that, in the case of this one play at least, struck me as unacceptable on its face: Black man, having survived the horrors of war to great advantage for the latter 4/5s  of his life, violently succumbs to credulity and sexual insecurity by virtue of a pile of ruses that an eight-year-old wouldn’t buy.  It was nonsense.  In the moment however, I was far more contemplative about why Othello would fall so desperately in love with a woman as—and how should this be said?—uncomely, albeit terribly kind and sweet, as the actress enacting our Desdemona.

Do not misunderstand me.  If this sounds sexist…or some other “ist,” to you, it sounds so to me as well.  I am human and, on a human level,  my sense of discernment was and remains always only a breath away from judgment.  So does yours, whether you have come to see it that way or not, it having evolved through a process of education.  Someone has taught you what to see.  I was perceiving and thinking with human instruments honed by a culture that had carefully taught me the European standards of American beauty.  Within the context of the play, Othello is meant to discern, most naturally, that the object of his attraction is far more beautiful, if only for her fair skin, than he.  But Othello knew, just as I, what unattractive was by cultural standards as well.  And I knew enough to know that our casting made no sense in terms of what might have generally drawn the attention of a Black, heterosexual American boy reaching his sexual prime in a predominantly affluent, white community, or a long-surviving, winning Moorish warrior in high society Venice.  I should add that my Black male intuition wrought by my American experience thus far told me that he might very possibly be attracted to her for any number of other reasons as well, beyond any genuine attraction of the heart: fetish, a trophy, spite…  Actors are human.  They think.  And no human is “the good guy.”  I was becoming a thoughtful actor, and just as rapidly becoming aware that I was not being perceived by the wider world like white ones are.  But in the moment, none of this mattered.  Ours was the talent available, and the inconvenient details were not going to find occasion to be discussed, no matter what the discussion might have lent to a much more intricately woven and rich telling of the tale, albeit with actors far too inexperienced to have pulled it off.  It is much more difficult to authentically interrogate humanity—what theater challenges us to do—than to point at a line of text and confuse it with insight.

I ask you to consider these stories as a few of the stops on the circuitous road of a Black American actor’s education, but also as interactions in human behavior; finding oneself in the midst of what white people do and trying to figure out why from the inside out with only the tools that white people had given one.  Very Othello…

I might have blamed it all on the amateurism that we all embodied.  But I felt the same way about James Earl Jones in the 1982 Broadway production as I felt about my community theater Desdemona, wondering why the Broadway Desdemona might be so inalterably attracted to a suitor so apparently out-of-shape and grey-bearded, to say nothing of brown-skinned…  Again, knowing that love, whatever it is, is not dependent upon the mutual attraction to any standard of aesthetic perfection of human forms, still I always hope a story will make sense of things for meI am the one being told the story…  And I, like Othello should realistically be, am neither stupid, nor particularly desirous to believe what you tell me, simply because you tell me.  There are, most likely, reasons among the deep-seated mysteries of the human heart for the intensity of the lover’s allure that, understanding, might help to make sound the story that Shakespeare has left so full of holes.  Paunchiness and age may indeed  be among them, or both ignored for the sake of things else of an even more irresistible magnetism.  But to discover them requires that you interrogate, mercilessly but with care, the human hearts of the human beings endeavoring to portray the human beings that people the play.  The depth of exploration required to expose and understand the ancient toxicity inherent in the play—in all of Shakespeare as emblematic of white, Euro-centric excellence—and put it to any transcendent theatrical or educational use is an arduous and often uncomfortable exercise in introspection.  It tends to require a curiosity and an attention and a compassion and a responsibility that the American theater, tethered to its equations of time and money,  as it sells its Shakespeare like fast fashion, generally hopes celebrity, or some other form of sensation, will take the place of.  I kept thinking, “Well, why wouldn’t she love him, he’s James Earl Jones?  That’s why everyone else does…”  But would she?  And if so…if he is the choice, then show me why.  Not some bogus, recycled symbology of love that will sell the run of your show to those you’ve taught some marketable ideas of what Shakespeare is.  What irresistible urgings of nature create you complicit in the massive, inevitable mechanism of human tragedy that snuffs out lives?  I’m sure they are inexplicable, but yet we will have had to have taken the time to lock ourselves up in a room and explain them, as best we are humanly able, to ourselves, to each other if it is ever to truly matter to an audience entered into this theater to commune with us around this play or any other.

In any case…I raged and snarled, and tried to make something compelling of my performance, even though I was unable to convince myself, or anyone else, that I was doing any justice at all to the top gear melodrama of “O, now forever / Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content / Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars / That make ambition virtue. O, farewell…”  I could cognize Shakespeare speaking of ego, interconnecting the various aspects of a man’s self-definition like a house of cards, so that if one card was removed the man would feel himself in his entirety collapsed.  I understood it.  But I also understood that it was Shakespeare’s definition of a man’s self-definition, in this case a Black man’s self-definition.  The house of cards was bigger, held more, somehow, than Othello’s fragile ego.  It held Shakespeare’s fragile ego, and that of the white society in process of evolving, of defining itself, to whom he spoke.  Even with that awareness, however,  I was convinced that the fault was mine.  I assumed that Shakespeare, in what he said, in how he said it, and whom he said it about could not possibly be all that amiss, because such had been suggested to me in one form or another enumerable times before I was twenty, by white men and white women, who revered other white men, often from the UK, who revered Shakespeare, or, perhaps simply realized that they could utilize him as an identifier to enhance, and advance, their own perceived value.  And so I was left to assume that I was simply not yet schooled enough to handle his language; to make human what his art propounded.  In fact, I was not, but neither was my Desdemona, nor Betty what’s-her-name, nor the handful of other amateur actors, or the lack of a set, or the short rehearsal period for a couple of hours at the ends of week days.  It was all downright underbaked, and I couldn’t understand, I have never been able to understand, why anyone, from the amateur to the anointed who people every strata of the American Industry, could take themselves seriously in offering such mediocrity to any audience.  What would be the purpose?  Something was rotten…  And in me, out of the rot, something was growing.

At least some forty years out from that which I’ve just related, I have not only grown insufferably bored with renderings of Shakespeare in performance that the American, and English theaters offers up at a premium, I have come to distrust my love of that playwright altogether, having long since come to distrust the packagers and sellers of everything in the American capitalist ecosystem including theater, education, and Him.  Reflecting on it, I find I was taught to love it.  In that teaching, I strongly suspect there was less love than agenda.  And in the inability to alter the practice we are confronted today with significant cross-sections of students who push back violently against the literature of the colonizer; pushing back at being told, in essence, Shakespeare is more important than they are, and than that which they see as reflective of their heritage.  In the case of African American students, it is an interesting exercise to sell them on the idea that, if they are descended from American slaves, then they are American, and thus Shakespeare is, for better or worse, among many things, their heritage.  But Untitling Shakespeare asks them to come to the table and argue for their own ethnicity, their sexuality, their cultural inclinations; to come and argue for their 21st Century humanity as uniquely manifested through them, the individual.  Come argue your contempt for Shakespeare and your love for another with all your intellect and human fury, and in your passion I will show you, of the human beings that people his plays, not how you are like them, but how they are like you.

Dr. David Sterling Brown, a dramaturgical voice and  partner in The Untitled Othello Project, writes in the conclusion of his new book, Shakespeare’s White Others, published by Cambridge University Press, “There is no peace for the individual who does not get to own the rights to their identity, for there is perhaps nothing more precious and personal than self-actualization and defining who one is on one’s own terms.” 1  This is so for each person who comes to the Untitling table.  Untitling is a process of removing all presumption, all “titles” if you will, that Shakespeare’s texts over generations have imposed upon us, we fragile and frightened masses of humans in processes of vying for advantage, for in truth that is all we animals do and will do until there is no more world to vie for the advantage of.   We seek to remove presumption and the ever subsequent assumptions that we as readers, educators, performers, and theater-makers of the texts perpetually, by rote, have made, and continue to pay forward.

In the same way that a brief biography of the evolving process of Untitling Shakespeare begins with a brief biography of me, I must be allowed to use the prologue of my existence to dimensionalize a character like Othello.  But Othello does not create the tragedy unassisted.  He is aided by a host of others enacted by players who must be given equal time and attention to layer their portrayals with the realities of their own experiences; to discover and battle for their truths.  We conspire to create tragedy whether we care to admit it or not, both in the world of the play and that of the play-makers.  It is always a collaborative effort.  And the process of Untitling Shakespeare, or Untitling any play, that we employ to face those facts in evolving a credible rendering of human dealing is not comfortable, but necessary in the creation of a theater that matters.

What do I mean when I say “a theater that matters?”  I mean something that bears relevance to a broader cross-section of the culture at large.  While many an American institution and edifice has been built up around the idea that these ancient plays matter, the piece of the American population that can avail itself of a Humanities education, that attends theater, that is afforded the leisure to stop to contemplate daily the state of humanity and the nature of being human that makes it so is quite small.  There is vast money and privilege amassed in the places where ideas of Shakespeare’s importance are nurtured and sustained.  But if there is authentic import in these plays to contemporary America, which is rapidly changing in color and texture, we will not find it by sticking more and more non-white people into them without the long, difficult discussions with those people about who they are, where they fit, and why, grounding them in the common denominator of primal, unpretty human drives.

At the heart of this process is sustained, intensive text analysis, workshopping, and ensemble creation, with an uninterrupted focus on what, in deepest truth, are the human animals that people these plays.  What are we—on the page and in the room—who continue to conspire to produce and perform these plays?  What drives us to do so?  I promise you, it is not in the main the greatness of the Poet that compels us forward.  It has rather to do with what we of the West—a sort of herd animal if you stand back far enough from the entirety of us and watch the motion of history—have been taught.   It has to do with what we have learned to believe we are served by.  From where and what in our beings does our comedy—and tragedy—actually arise?  This is work that thrives only where a diversity of collaborators from across myriad disciplines and cultures interact with theater-makers to generate a wealth of contemporary new thought with which to approach old, harm-inducing ideation inherent in Western culture.

It is not adaptation.  While editions of the text can emerge, this is not about rewriting Shakespeare.  Personally, I love the language, and I would make an adamant case for its sublimity to anyone not of that mind.   It doesn’t seek to reinvent what is beautiful, but to repurpose it by illuminating what is not visible in hopes that it will offer us discoveries in classrooms, and productions and performances heretofore unimagined; the same material collaboratively scrutinized by a culturally and disciplinarily diverse collective searching for the most accurate rendering of the common denominator.  Harold Bloom wrote about what he liked to call Shakespeare’s “invention of the human.” 2  But at best what Shakespeare gave us was 1200 word vessels into which the myriad layers of human existence needs to then be poured.  By digging deeply into the core of humanity to expose the proactive and nuanced characters whose complexity is what makes the plays matter, Shakespeare’s work is pressure tested in an intimate examination of who we are and what we do made manifest, and a process of bringing our authentic selves to the table of maximally fruitful human engagement.  In theory, if we can create a space that is safe enough—not comfortable, mind you, for nothing regarding the truth of our common, most basic human nature is either pretty or comfortable—we will begin to shed the misleading narratives that Shakespeare helped to perpetuate.  If supported communion and collaboration can advance a process by which we learn to stop lying to ourselves and each other about who we are and what we do, in theory, we would no longer find ourselves lying to an audience in the portrayal of characters engaged in the process of creating tragedy—or comedy—because they are us and our audience too.  No Shakespeare faces, Shakespeare voices, no Shakespeare sounds and shapes.  We would find ourselves holding the mirror up to nature for the first time for real.  Instead of hawking product, we would suddenly recognize one another in the communal spaces of the American theaters and classrooms.

Perhaps nothing about this seems new.  Many listening to me might tell me I’m simply talking about “table work,” the dramaturgical examination that a creative team, to greater or lesser degree, presumably does service to at the start of every theatrical production.  But no American theater-making process offers the opportunity for examination of this depth.  We have but a matter of weeks, at times less, to put on the faces and to fill the relational spaces of Shakespeare that have been recycled so often that they have become unremarkable, unless perhaps they are inhabited by some of the industry’s anointed.  Oh, let Mark Rylance play the lion too!  Shakespeare as product in the American theater economy dictates that we don the trappings and suits of whatever the social justice zeitgeist du jour if it can be made marketable, but ultimately can seem to do little more than inexplicably insinuate brown people into all of the places from which the industry has tried for time immemorial to restrict them.  The director, Sam Gold, tried to stick one of just about every non-normative body he could find into his Broadway production of The Scottish Play without employing any means to ground them in whatever story he was attempting to tell, and as a result ultimately told none.  I suspect he was short on money, time, but mostly depth of intention.  Nonetheless, there it was to the eye of the average privileged American theater-goer with several hundred disposable dollars, Shakespeare on Broadway.  The production was a glaring example of what scholar, Dr. Nora J. Williams, Lecturer at the University of Essex, calls “Incomplete Dramaturgies,” a phenomenon she describes as, “…entrenched norms lurking like specters behind a sheen of progressivism.”  In her piece by that title published in the Spring 2022 edition of Shakespeare Bulletin (John Hopkins University Press), she goes on to say,  “I acknowledge that the necessary work of intervening in canonical texts like Shakespeare’s is not always funded or supported by the larger institutions that make theater possible…I argue that if you want to put on a Shakespeare play that speaks back to the cultural capital and power that Shakespeare wields, you might have to gut it first: tear out its insides and rearrange them in order to get to something new.  This gutting requires more—and more difficult—thinking than narratives of ‘nontraditional’ casting usually imply.3

So this is work that cannot be done from the outside in.  It seeks to penetrate the veneers laid over everything in the American imaginary. These are veneers that have become more or less impenetrable over generations of agenda’d human intention, so that now, the only place to start is with the base human animal within, and the belief that theater presentation is not what they told us it was.  Shakespeare is not what they told us it was.  Hamlet, Cleopatra, or Othello are not what we were told they were.

The American Theater Industrial Complex is sick if not dying.  Interestingly, its maladies are not the result of a lack of money.  A recent study by Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy organization, revealed that, nationally, even the not-for-profit arts and culture ecosystem generates $151.7 billion per year in economic activity and supports 2.6 million jobs. 4  Its illness is the result of its driving engine being the American capitalist economy built upon racial and cultural division, social and economic inequity.  The industry, in its dash to sell product, hasn’t the time nor the inclination to attempt to ameliorate, or even honestly interrogate, the ills upon which it also thrives.  “Untitling” insists upon another approach by seeing and centering the human as both solution and root of the problem.  What this work will require is the collaboration, space, time,  expertise, and mostly good faith of academic institutions, like the three-year-long relationship that The Project has been enjoying with its partners at Sacred Heart University, and like the rich but all too brief engagement we had just this Thursday morning with the graduate students and their professors from the Shakespeare and Performance program here at Mary Baldwin University.

There is no relevance in the recycling of Shakespeare.  We can continue to pay tribute to the presences, presentations, and prescriptions of our old English overlords and their acolytes if we want to, but the cultural currency that they have represented for so long is only in our minds.  There has been nothing new to learn there for well longer than I’ve been alive, only the incentive to evolve practice that keep them at the center.  Those that can teach us; the next-gen students, educators and theater-makers already possessed of the tools to think beyond the prescribed, restrictive, white, male, euro-centric, cis-gendered supremacist box, are simply waiting for permission to attack these works un-prescribed and un-policed.  The questions that the Untitling process encourages them to ask cannot be answered by a Google search.  An English undergrad student at Weber State College offered a “what if.”  What if Desdemona chose Othello, not because of any particular attraction to his ethnicity, but because of how she perceived his attraction to hers.  What if her calculus was that he would be particularly grateful to have her because she was White and thus would not take her for granted as all her white Venetian suitors would?   In short, is Desdemona making self-serving, racist assumptions?  In an age of misinformation and myriad narratives spun up to particular advantage, it is mind-expanding and life-changing to give the student room to discern truth for themselves and to speak their discoveries into not only the discussion, but the creative end.

This past Thursday morning we began, in concert with the Mary Baldwin graduate students, to apply the tools of the Untitling process, those that we have evolved thus far, to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  The students brought a depth of thought and a diversity of ideas that was, in two words, intense and invaluable.  Project Untitled has, up until now, maintained a focus on Othello in an attempt to understand and perhaps present what glories and grotesqueries of humanity might in fact create that particular tragedy in a way that we can accept.  The scholar, Ayanna Thompson, posits that it is impossible, and we may be in the process of proving her right.  I thought that a detour into comedy might be a welcome respite from the arduous self-examination and admission of complicity that must accompany discovery in the Othello story.  I should have known better.  A quick look at the latest Arden edition of Twelfth Night will reveal that most of the pages of the script are more or less three fourths glosses and one quarter text.  Twelfth Night is a play rife with endless and idiomatically obscure references to issues and ideas of the early modern moment that would make any moderately educated Elizabethan smile.  I perhaps use this analogy much too often, but I continue to hope that it makes an extremely important point about the insincerity of our American Shakespeare machine.  It has been about 85 years since the comedy duo of Abbot and Costello made famous their routine of “Who’s on First.”  You would be hard-pressed to find one of this first 21st century generation who knows who they were.  Imagine what it might look like three hundred years further on from here, if I were to try and mount a performance of that routine to a culture that had absolutely no knowledge that a game called baseball ever existed as a national pastime, or how it was played, or why anyone would care.  And yet this is what we continually choose to do with Twelfth Night, and Loves Labors Lost, and a number of the other comedies the language of which was composed in the colloquial context of matters long forgotten.  In these cases, we tend to cover the incomprehensibility with the never-dying, broad, puerile humor of bodily functions and sex.  Abandoning specificity, we gesticulate wildly, hip-thrusts, crotch grabs, and other inexplicable dumb-shows and noise, playing to an audience of cultivated but uneducated groundlings.  All this reveals a great deal about the human beings mounting the play, but nearly nothing about what the Untitling process is equally interested in, the human beings who are the subjects of it.   If we could step back far enough to look upon the scene of ourselves packaging and selling Shakespeare, we would marvel at how much we resemble Midsummer’s rude mechanicals, creating spectacle around matters of which we know absolutely nothing…  And we love the mechanicals.  We too should love ourselves, and recognize our shared humanity, but to do so should not excuse us a standard of awareness for which Shakespeare’s uneducated characters are forgiven.  Broadly, we fool ourselves to believe that our practices, at this moment, by and large, honor these remarkable plays.

As this year’s array of papers and colloquies will suggest, there is no shortage of deep diving into ways that we are synthesizing Shakespeare and other early modern texts through our contemporary instruments and discovering how they might more accurately represent a wider spectrum of our being.  Project Untitled unrealistically but sincerely wishes for forums where all of these explorers sit at the same table in synod with students, educators, artists and theater-makers pondering open-endedly the questions of humanity depicted in these plays until something truly worthy of staging materializes.  Short of that, we set up our brief laboratories where they will have us, hoping to discover more salient and universal truths, hoping to inspire a new generation of theater practitioners and educators to take nothing at suggested value, and to make something that matters.

1. David Sterling Brown, Shakespeare’s White Others, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2023), 179.

2. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998).

3. Dr. Nora J. Williams, “Incomplete Dramaturgies,” Shakespeare Bulletin, Volume 40, Number 1, Spring 2022, pp. 1-22, https://doi.org/10.1353/shb.2022.0000.

4. “Arts & Economic Prosperity 6,” Americans for the Arts, 2023, https://aep6.americansforthearts.org/.