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BritGrad 2020 Exclusive: A Conversation with Dr. Martin Wiggins

Originally posted: 28 August, 2020

Dr. Martin Wiggins is the Senior Scholar at the Shakespeare Institute, and has been involved with BritGrad since the first conference in 1999. His most frequently referenced work is the eminent British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue (OUP, 11 volumes); he has also written several works about the intersections of drama with history, such as Shakespeare and the Drama of His Time (OUP), and edited many Renaissance plays. Wiggins has remained connected to performance as well, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company in various ways, including as advisor to Phillip Breen’s production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday in 2014, as well as writing a programme essay for Greg Doran’s 2019 Measure for Measure in which he revealed the exact date of the first performance of the play.

Wiggins rarely grants interviews, but he was willing to sit down with Ricardo Cardoso on a cold February morning for a chat about his work and interests from childhood to the present and beyond. Cardoso is a visiting research student at the Shakespeare Institute with the support of São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP; grant 2017/07455-4), and a member of the BritGrad 2020 organizing committee. He is working on a PhD in Social History at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. His thesis will explore allusions to Anglo-Spanish diplomatic relations in the Jacobean plays of the King’s Men.


Ricardo Cardoso: Hi, Martin, thank you for agreeing to give us this interview. Let’s start at the beginning: How did you first become interested in Renaissance drama? And what was your original research interest in your undergraduate years?

Martin Wiggins: There are two things I can tell you about my early experiences with the drama of the period. One is related to productions on television. The first play of the period that I’m aware of having seen was Edward II (1592). I was allowed to stay up to watch the Ian McKellen production of Edward II, which I’ve seen again recently and it’s terrific. It was televised in the early 1970s, I believe. I remember my schoolteacher saying to me the day after — I told him that I had stayed up late to see Edward II, and he probably didn’t know very much about the play — but he did ask me where my matchsticks were, on the assumption that in order to stay awake that late I would have needed to prop my eyelids open with matchsticks (laughter). So I was allowed to stay up late to see a play about English history; I suspect my parents didn’t know very much about what Edward II was famous for, and what the play is about. They would have known that it was about an English monarch. But it is a play, of course, which I later edited.

On the other hand, I was not allowed to stay up to watch the BBC production of The Duchess of Malfi (1613), which my parents did know something about. I later found out, very much to my regret too late, that The Duchess of Malfi had been my grandmother’s favourite play. I didn’t find out till after she was dead. She had seen both of the productions with Peggy Ashcroft in the 1940s and in the early 1960s. But in terms of the drama of the period, my first exposure was a play by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), and my next exposure was the BBC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), with Ronnie Barker as Bottom. He was a great English comedian, and also a very fine straight actor. And yet, I’m also very much aware that part of my childhood is not having seen a play by John Webster (1580-1634). The question is whether one is influenced by what one has seen or what one is not allowed to see. I knew that I was interested in The Duchess of Malfi because I saw the trailer and found it compelling. What I remember from the trailer is that nothing that would have been problematic. I remember a picture of the Duchess on film walking in the gardens, and I found that arresting and interesting. So I was interested in the play not because of its reputation as a horror show — which I did not know — I was interested in the play as some kind of articulation of the way the world looked in the early seventeenth century. That appealed to me somehow. We are talking about the first half of the 1970s, so we’re talking about a pre-teen version of me.

If we go forward to mid-teens, I was particularly fond of one particular book in the school library. It was a nineteenth-century novel. Now it is the way of literary history that often adult literature becomes children’s literature in later generations. We have all (in this country) probably had our first exposure to Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as “children’s literature”. The idea of Great Expectations as children’s literature is at one level very peculiar, and yet it’s something that — certainly in the 60s and 70s when I was a child — was retailed to you as a young person because it starts out as being about a young person. The kind of dark cynicism that engulfs the novel later on was not seen as being problematic or unsuitable. But the particular 19th-century novel that I was very fond of was by an author who is not well remembered nowadays whose name was William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882). It was a novel about Dick Turpin, actually, called Rookwood (1834). It was not because of the narrative content of the novel that I particularly loved this book, but because each chapter had an epigraph. And all of the epigraphs in this novel were from Jacobean drama. And I didn’t know all of these plays that were being quoted; they were attributed either to an author or to a play (in the case of A Yorkshire Tragedy [1605], one of the plays that was quoted there). I didn’t know anything about all the plays that were quoted there, but I just loved the language. That was when I first knew that there were writers called Webster and Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) and so on who wrote in this way that I liked.

We go to my late teens, near the end of my schooling, and by that time I had scoured the drama of the period insofar as the resources of a reasonable school library allowed. I remember watching a television panel game called Call My Bluff, about defining words. There are rare words and each of the panel of three gives a definition, two of which are untrue and one of which is true, and you have to guess which is the real definition. One of the panellists was Susan Hill, who was married for quite a long time to Stanley Wells. And her definition which I think was a bluff rather than the truth, was justified in terms that her husband had come across this particular word in some author he’s working on; She said it was probably [Thomas] Dekker (1572-1632). I didn’t know who her husband was, and I didn’t know what he worked on, but I knew who Dekker was, and I now know that this would have been at the time that Wells was editing The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599) by Dekker, which Wells completed in 1979. So I have a sort of developing history of knowledge about the drama and the dramatists of this period that is not tied solely to Shakespeare which was already very well developed by the time I went to university in 1981.

RC: So in early 1980s your principal interest was in the other dramatists of this period? MW: Including Shakespeare. I did not see and still do not see a fundamental difference between him and the other writers of that time. They represent a continuum; some are good, and some are not. Shakespeare is one of the good writers, but I’ve never seen him as paramount in the way that English culture made him from the eighteenth century onwards.

RC: Very interesting. This makes a lot of things clear. I think my curiosity is shared by everyone who knows your work, especially the catalogue.

MW: What I’m saying is that what I found in all these writers I also found in Shakespeare.

RC: I think the best word you said is that it is a continuum; it is a group, a moment in time.

MW: Yes.

RC: And what was your PhD thesis about?

MW: My PhD thesis became my first book. It was about professional killers — assassins — in English Renaissance drama. It was a study of the whole phenomenon from early plays like Cambyses, King of Persia (1569) right through to the Restoration. In the end, I talk about The Soldier’s Fortune (1681) by Thomas Otway (1652-1685). It was a “conspective” — I don’t know if that is a word — approach to a dramatic phenomenon which looked at this trope in a large number of plays in its full complexity. Some of these characters are operating under orders, and some are operating under contract. I think that what particularly interested me, although I wasn’t particularly aware of it at the time, was the contractual side of it. Because a lot of things that interest us as modern scholars, and particularly as modern critics, are the things that are of interest to the culture in which we are operating. We read the literature of the past and we find meanings that are culturally useful to us at any given time. This was a thesis that was written in the 1980s during what you might call the period of “high Thatcherism”.

RC: How was that?

MW: The right-wing political ideology associated with Margaret Thatcher. This was a period in which everything was for sale, that every human transaction was understood by those in government as an economic transaction, and so it interested me that human life was also a potential part of an economic transaction. I suspect that was the origin of the idea of studying this particular phenomenon.

RC: [pause] Sorry. I am a little bit touched, and I will explain it to you. I had a great professor in Brazil named Nicolau Sevcenko. He used to teach classes about Brazilian Culture part of the year at King’s College, sharing an office with Eric Hobsbawn, another part of the year at Harvard University, and the rest at Universidade de São Paulo. He was a master and unfortunately died a few years ago. I worked at a Brazilian academic journal and had the chance to interview him, and I asked him this same question. His answer was the same as yours — except about Brazil. His focus was Brazilian literature of the early twentieth century as political resistance, but dialectically in the process of commodification. His PhD was done during the transition of the 1970s to the 1980s, when Brazil was under a dictatorship and transitioning to neo-liberalism, this historical context greatly influenced his research. He also mentioned Margaret Thatcher because she and Ronald Regan were a standard of neo-liberalism for all the world at that moment. I was really touched because your answer was so similar to his, and suddenly I felt as if I was in that same moment pondering about a similar phenomenon with him in that interview, but now it is happening with you! History is a cycle! [laughter]

MW: [laughter]

RC: Speaking of this matter of important influences in academic training, Emrys Jones was your supervisor for D.Phil. Could you tell us what it was like to be supervised by him, and also about other important persons in your intellectual formation?

MW: We can start with my undergrad tutor, John Creaser, a Milton scholar who effectively taught me how to think about literature. The Oxford system is an extremely generous system whereby you meet for an hour with your tutor every week and you read an essay you’ve written. The tutor then critiques the essay, and you discuss it. This can sometimes be very devastating. You come in thinking that you’ve built a great work of architecture and you end up with a heap of rubble at the end of it. But that is also a necessary part of learning to think. So I owe a lot to John. I also owe a lot to Emrys Jones, my doctoral supervisor. Part of being a good supervisor is knowing when to leave your student alone. I know now that he worried about my work for about eighteen months because he wasn’t seeing very much, and then about two hundred pages floated onto his desk because it was ready for him to see. He worried about it, but he nevertheless left me alone to do it. He was there when I needed to talk to him, but he wasn’t sitting on my back requiring me to have monthly meetings. Of course, part of the job of being a good supervisor is knowing where the student is and being able to chivvy them along when necessary, but a lot of students don’t need that. He understood that perfectly. That makes it sounds as though what I owe to Emrys is his absence, and that’s not true. Emrys also taught me that there are ways of engaging with dramatic literature not limited to language. If you were to ask me what Emrys’ most important book was, I’d have to say Scenic Form in Shakespeare. I’m very fond of his other book, The Origins of Shakespeare, though I think it contains some things that we now know are based on historical misconceptions (like his understanding of the Henry VI plays) but he wasn’t to have known that at the time. But in the end, the more important book, in terms of how it influenced future generations, was Scenic Form in Shakespeare, in which he addresses the question of how you can engage with a play even if you don’t understand a single word of the language in which it is written.

When I was an undergraduate, one of the special papers I did was Drama, and I was sent to another tutor for that. One of the other things that tutors need to know is when a student has had too much of a particular tutor — not as in not wanting any more, but needing to hear another voice. So I was sent to John Wilders, who was literary consultant to the BBC Television Shakespeare. And I studied drama with him, both Renaissance drama and later, up to the nineteenth century. I made him read some nineteenth-century melodramas, which I don’t think he’d done before. And it was John Wilders who taught me about the creative process in drama being not merely a literary process but also a theatrical process. I will also mention Andrew Gurr. In 1985, I had my first academic job. I was getting towards the end of my first year as a doctoral researcher at Oxford and they needed someone at Reading to cover for someone who was on leave. So I came in and spent a term teaching Shakespeare at University of Reading one day a week, which was quite interesting in a number of ways but I’m talking about Andrew Gurr specifically. I quite often had lunch with Andy. He was the head of department and he took a lot of trouble to engage with me and to talk to me. And I suppose it was from Andy that I learned my sense that the historical context of theatre is another important part of how we ought to think about drama.

And the final name I will mention is Stanley Wells, who was responsible for my appointment to the Shakespeare Institute. I first met him in 1987, when I did some teaching at Balliol College Oxford, teaching Shakespeare for somebody who was on leave, and Stanley and I taught some classes together. Stanley at the time was research fellow at Balliol while he was finishing off the Oxford Shakespeare. This is just before he came to the Shakespeare Institute to be its director. And I think it’s difficult to quantify or to describe in individual distinct terms the importance of Stanley in my career, but he I would regard as the person who showed me what it is to be a professional academic. I worked with Stanley as the director of the Institute for seven years before he retired, and those were an important seven years of my life. They defined the things an academic should be trying to do in an institution of this kind.

RC: Stanley, I have been surprised to note, is also very funny.

MW: I think I’ve known that Stanley is funny since 1987. One of the things that we taught together was Shakespeare from a theatrical point of view. I remember vividly a student was talking enthusiastically about the most recent RSC production of Romeo and Juliet, which was a modern dress production, and the student said, “And at this point they drove a great big Maserati on to the stage.” And Stanley said, rather drily, “I think you’ll find it should be an Alfa Romeo” (laughter).

RC: Now, Martin, I would like to ask you something related to Shakespeare studies. The field has been marked by various movements such as New Criticism and Cultural Studies — from which Cultural Materialism and New Historicism arose. Do you think that we have a new trend or movement arising at this time? If so, what is it?

MW: [pause] On the one hand, there are certain trends in recent Shakespeare criticism which I think are problematic, like Presentism.

RC: I’m not sure if that’s the same concept as we have in Brazil. What is it?

MW: Well, it means you read the play without regard for its historical point of origin, but solely in terms of what we are interested in now. Yes, of course, as critics (as I said earlier), we are always interested in things that are of interest to our culture now, but we historically as critics have also paid attention to the point of origin. Presentism disregards the point of origin entirely and simply wants to read historical artefacts as if they are contemporary products.

On the other hand, one of the things that I’ve been particularly aware of because I suppose I’m partly responsible for it, is the greater willingness of people to think in terms of the drama as a corpus rather than in terms of individual plays. Ten years ago, you would have a new book on something in the drama of the period, and there would be a chapter on some Shakespeare play; there might be a chapter on Marlowe; there might be a chapter on The Duchess of Malfi; there might be a chapter on The Broken Heart (1629) or whatever. It would be a standard romp through some standard canonical texts — because that’s all that people would have read. And it’s all that people felt we needed to be aware of for the purposes of acquainting undergraduates with the drama of the period (insofar as undergraduates get acquainted with it at all). Of course, Shakespeare is a universal constant in American departments, but courses in Renaissance drama are very rare. So the criticism of the field is driven by a form of cultural selection which is in itself partly a form of ignorance. And also driven by the perceived needs of the academy in relation to teaching, which is not the primary purpose of the academy. It seems to me the primary purpose of the academy is to extend, develop, and circulate human knowledge. Teaching can be an example of circulating knowledge, but it is not the only one.

What I’m now noticing in the work of particularly younger scholars is that people are less bound to a group of canonical texts and are more interested in seeing the drama as a large, complex phenomenon that operates through a lot of texts. And I suppose I have contributed to that by making a lot of this material easier to know about in the first place. I was going to say easier to access, but they’ve always been relatively straightforward to access, with the exception of a very small number of manuscript plays that have never been edited. It’s not difficult in this day and age to go and read a rare play — a rare printed play — because you can just order them, you can just get a copy off of EEBO. What is difficult is knowing about the existence of a certain play, and that is what I would like to think that I have helped to facilitate. So that is a trend in historical understanding of the drama of the period which moves it away from instrumentalism. We now think of the “drama of the period”, which is a thing to be studied on its own terms (quite the opposite of presentism) rather than as a constellation of things i.e., individual texts, of which we need to write about some because it will be useful to other students. Yes, of course, there are good plays and there are bad plays. There are some very, very bad plays, and I have read them — somebody has to — but there are actually many, many more good plays than is commonly understood. And, equally, the fact that each individual work has its own inherent integrity as a work of art, whether it’s a good work of art or a bad work of art, doesn’t mean that there isn’t this wider picture that people aren’t becoming more open to seeing.

RC: Well, Martin, all of this is very interesting, and in some ways leads us back to the monumental work on the Catalogue, and also to the last question I would like to formulate: what upcoming project are you most excited about?

MW: Oh God. I can’t tell you about any one project; I will tell you about several. I’m not somebody — this is in the nature of everything I do — I don’t have single favourites, just as I don’t think of Shakespeare as a single preeminent writer; I think of him as part of a larger phenomenon that I like. Likewise, I don’t want to say, “This is the one project that I’m doing which is more exciting than any of the other projects that I’m going to be doing”. Obviously, the project that I am just finishing [British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue] has been exciting and important . . . and tiring. I will never do anything quite as big as that again. But if it is an important work, it is the important work of the middle part of my life rather than the whole of my life. And there are several things that have arisen from it. I have become more and more interested in chronology — in trying to understand how individual works exist in relation to human life expressed in time. Because chronology is the fundamental matrix out of which we can understand virtually any historical phenomenon. If you don’t have an idea of when things happen in relation to others, you don’t have a history that is in any way meaningful. So, I did quite a lot of work on the chronology of the drama in order to put the Catalogue together in chronological order. I am now able to develop the application of some of the protocols that I formulated for that task in order to calculate in far more detail the precise chronology of the Shakespeare canon. I am now in a position to get some plays dated to the month or less by the application of a range of kinds of evidence, and by the power of deductive reasoning — so it’s a combination of inductive and deductive reasoning. And that has led on to thinking about other aspects of the matrix in which the plays of Shakespeare exist.

I’m particularly interested in the moment that these plays were written for an established company of individuals who had distinct individual specialisms and distinct individual voices. So that it is starting to become possible to reconstruct the original casts of these plays. I can now hear the “voice” of Richard Cowley (? – 1619); when I say I can hear the voice, I can identify the rhetorical tricks that Cowley was particularly adept at deploying. I know the role strings that some performers had, and how each role in a role string started to define further their specialism. My excellent research student Jodie Smith is working on the persistence of props in memory; you can also find the persistence of roles in memory, and identifying the role strings for these actors is a crucial step of that. And chronology is also a dimension of that because, clearly, where people are in their careers starts to define how each individual string is structured. I don’t know whether there will be a single book on the chronology of Shakespeare plays and their casting, or whether that’s actually two very closely related books, but that is a project that I intend to pursue.

And the other exciting project, which is still in its research and development phase, is something that I’ve been asked to do by Oxford University Press, which is to general edit a new edition of the complete works of Dekker, which I am going to be doing with a colleague named Eleanor Lowe from Oxford Brookes, who will also be the general editor. At the moment, we are in the process of working out what we want the edition to achieve and how we want it to be done. What we’re doing is editing together one play and one prose work, and that will enable us to write the editorial guidelines from an informed point of view. That is not yet under contract to OUP, but it’s a long-term project that will, we hope, see fruition in the early 2030s, ideally in 2032, which is the 400th anniversary of the likely date of Dekker’s death.

RC: What a great project!

MW: That will include all of Dekker’s writing: verse, prose, drama, all of his surviving writing. There is a certain amount of work that has to be done on attribution because his career is patchy compared with other writers. With Shakespeare, we have all but two plays that he wrote; William Davenant (1601-1668) we have all but one, I think; with James Shirley (1596-1666), we have most of the plays. With earlier professional dramatists like Dekker and [Thomas] Heywood (1570-1641), the survival of their plays is often a rather arbitrary process. But also, some of their plays may have been printed with no author’s name attached.

In the rehearsal room for Phillip Breen’s RSC production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, I had an epiphany, which is where this project started. There’s a line in a certain play published with no author’s name attached which I’ve always made fun of because it’s a rather inept attempt to imitate Romeo and Juliet (1595). In the rehearsal room for Shoemaker’s Holiday, I suddenly heard Dekker doing the same thing, only doing it right. That night I went to that anonymous play and went through it, and there were Dekker markers in every scene. So there are Dekker plays out there which have not been identified, and that will need to be done. And some of the plays which are out there which might be suspected to be by Dekker might turn out to be by other authors. A play that I once suspected to be by Dekker is The Fair Maid of Bristol (1604), it’s not by him. Nobody else knows who wrote it — but I do — so a certain amount of material that has survived with no transparent authorial inscription needs to be investigated as part of the process of forming the canon. That epiphany in 2014 led me to run a Dekker marathon in 2016. (As some people know, every June I run marathon play readings at the Shakespeare institute, where we read a group of related plays across three weeks, which is a way of seeing related material in juxtaposition, and therefore getting insights that you would not get if you read one play every week for however long it took.) I chose Dekker as the focus for the 2016 marathon, and that revealed a huge number of insights, which is where the Dekker edition has come from as a conception for a project. So I suppose the defining signature that has come out of this is that I like putting things together in sequences. I don’t divide things up and say, “You’ve got to read this work on its own as a single artefact”; I think that artefacts become more meaningful and rewarding when you see all of them together.

RC: Yes, this is the first thing we learn in historical studies. You can’t analyse one document out of a series alone; you must consider the series as a whole.

MW: It’s what historians are used to doing because historians are concerned with phenomena that take place across time. It’s not something that’s properly taught in the discipline of English because English encourages you as an undergraduate to work on the individual text and see the dynamics within that text, and of course that is a valuable skill, but it balkanizes literature.

RC: Do you think this is something inherited from the New Criticism?

MW: [pause] Well, yes, I suppose it is. And I was once described as a Historicist Late New Critic. So I’m in sympathy with the formalist objectives of the New Criticism. But it’s like working with extreme tunnel vision.

RC: Right.

MW: You can’t understand the world only by looking through a microscope. You have to be able to see the forest as well as the trees.

RC: The micro and the macro…

MW: They are both important skills for understanding the world. If you end up just looking at the trees, you’re going to suffer from myopia. The discipline that I came into in the 1980s was split between people who wanted to spend their entire career or their entire intellectual life with their noses on the ground, and people who wanted to spend their entire intellectual life with their head in the clouds as theoreticians. And neither is a satisfying or meaningful position to adopt. But you have to have some kind of understanding of theory, you have to have some kind of understanding of minutiae, but you also have to understand the whole of the world: the world that is rather than the world that is theorised.

RC: Well, Martin, I think that is a great place to end our interview. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and reflections about time and early modern times. MW: My pleasure.

The BritGrad commitee would like to give special thanks to Professor Joseph F. Stephenson for helping us with the transcription and editing of the text.

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