Experimental Education: Studying with Shakespeare’s GlobeWords:…

Experimental Education: Studying with Shakespeare’s Globe

Words: Kim Gilchrist

As I write this, I’m two weeks past my viva – the meeting where a student is required to defend their completed PhD thesis, answering questions posed by two senior academics. Happily, I now get to call myself Doctor Gilchrist. 

It’s been a long process, an adventure, from Shakespeare enthusiast to doctor of early modern drama. And the journey started, academically at least, with an application form to KCL and Shakespeare’s Globe MA in Shakespeare Studies

I have a BA, and general background, in theatre studies. I had worked on a number of productions of Shakespeare’s plays over the years, in a role we called co-directing but which would probably now be called dramaturgy – I filled gaps that needed filling: talked to the actors one-on-one, composed songs for our folk-rock wayward sisters in Macbeth, researched the plays, read all the Arden footnotes etc. I wrote a play of my own, Forgiving Shakespeare, a comedy in verse about Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Cervantes, and Shakespeare’s daughter, Judith. I read books, and books, and books, about Shakespeare. But I’d never thought I could “do” Shakespeare for a living. 

For some reason, around the end of 2011 it all fell together and I realised I spent more time reading and thinking about Shakespeare and his world than almost anything else. Without realising, I’d stumbled on the thing I was meant to be doing. Back to that application form.

The KCL and Shakespeare’s Globe MA in Shakespeare Studies runs, at the King’s College London end, from the English department. As such, I was an unusual candidate – out of further education for many, many, years, and with no English literature experience since my A-levels. Yet I soon found, in a good way, that a grounding in English Literature offered only partial preparation for the MA. For those used to studying Shakespeare and early modern drama only on the page, only as a kind of refined form of novel – reading the characters for psychological dimensions, arguing about motive and metaphor – the MA could be a shock. 

There were classes on textiles and costume, the most valuable properties owned by any early modern playing company or theatre owner; sessions on music, and make-up – Globe Education’s Farah Karim-Cooper has literally written the book on cosmetics in early modern drama: I remember the reverent hush the day we passed a pot of shimmering pearl powder around the class; we learned about the strange acoustics of playhouses, the economics of touring, the poetry of doubling, how the person sitting on the throne of England determined what did, and didn’t, get played; we learned about the cultural pressures that caused, shaped, and sustained Shakespeare’s plays, pressures that are often left invisible by more traditional teaching methods.
Central to the MA was its location – within the Globe complex itself. 

There was always a sense of practical activity, of theatre at work –crowds audible as we walked to class, costumed actors swooping past, props under construction in the car park. This helped the theories, the history we were learning feel less abstract. We could study theories of bare-stage, open-air performance, and then see theory put into practice from the pit of the theatre itself. Was Henry VI different when performed over ten hours in torrential rain? It was. It was. 

Meanwhile, through the modules offered on the KCL campus, the culture of the Elizabethan-Jacobean world was uncovered. Just as Shakespeare’s Globe afforded greater understanding of the material pressures and conditions of theatre and performance, at KCL we learned about the production, economies, and peculiarities of playbooks, those ephemeral, fragile, largely disposable little volumes without which we would have no access to the texts of early modern drama. Who printed these books, once the players were done with their scripts? Who bought them? How much did they cost? Why were so many hundreds of plays printed? Why were so many thousands of plays never printed? 

When I started teaching early modern drama at my current university, Roehampton, I took some students on a tour of the Globe. They were able to see the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, a version of the kind of space in which, for example, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was first performed. We then crossed the river via Blackfriars Bridge to the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral, once the centre of the London book trade. We stood on the spot where, once it had been published, The Duchess of Malfi was first put up for sale by a bookseller called John Waterson from his wooden stall. 

From the Globe, we were able to retrace the footsteps, and the lifecycle, of a single play and its customers, from stage to stall. On this theme, if you want to read more about what I learned, I adapted my MA dissertation on the play Mucedorus – the most frequently published play of the early modern era – into an article that was published last year by the journal Shakespeare.

Beyond the formal parameters of the course itself, there were constant opportunities to participate in and observe events put on by Globe Education. Of particular impact for me was Read Not Dead, the regular stagings of little-or-never-performed early modern plays put on by skilled actors with a single morning’s rehearsal. It opened my eyes to strange and beautiful plays I would never otherwise have been able to see; it provided valuable insight into how plays work in performance – a play that may have been dismissed by literature scholars as unpoetic or crude can reveal subtleties and depth of artistry when spoken and acted aloud. 

Finally, there are Globe Education’s internships – open only to MA students when I was there, now open to applications across the UK. I was lucky enough to get a placement, and even luckier that this coincided with the opening of the SWP. I filled a bulging folder full with articles and research for the director of the SWP’s inaugural production, The Duchess of Malfi and then, like all dramaturgs and researchers will do, I scrutinised the final production to see if my research had had any influence. 

To learn at Shakespeare’s Globe was also to conduct research, watch plays for fun, and make long-sustained personal and professional friendships that have enriched my life and career ever since. It was, and is, a dynamic, forward-thinking, challenging and experimental institution. I learned a lot.  

Photo: Pete Le May