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Plenary Interview: Dr Simon Smith on 'Music and Drama at the Early Modern Inns of Court; or, listening again to "Twelfth Night"'

By Jen Slager (Secretary, 2024)

What advice would you give to those hoping to pursue a career in academia, the creative arts and/or a similar sector?

Be flexible and patient: there are great opportunities across these sectors, but also significant challenges facing universities and arts organisations at the moment. Being creative about how and where you might use your skills as a researcher, a practitioner, or a teacher is important -- and be prepared to be persistent. Don't take initial rejection as a sign not to keep trying: there are opportunities out there and it may take a while to get your chance, but that is no reflection on you.

What is your favourite Shakespeare or early modern play and why?

The two early modern plays that still make me laugh on the umpteenth readthrough are "The Knight of the Burning Pestle" and "Twelfth Night". All except Feste's terrible joke about his house standing by the church: it's terrible.

Do you have any hobbies or interests that inspire or interact with your area of research?

I play a lot of music recreationally, though I don't think any of the instruments I'm involved with these days had been invented in the early modern period. Music is a passion of mine as well as a research interest, though.

Why do you think Shakespeare is still relevant today to modern audiences and academics?

Partly because Western culture and aesthetic theory has formed around Shakespeare: we are still in the process of understanding the implications of this entanglement, I think, and careful attention to Shakespeare's early modern context and the ways in which he is perhaps not our contemporary is a crucial part of that.

As noted in your recent book, Playing and Playgoing in Early Modern England, how do you think that the musicians playing during the performance would impact this continual relationship, as you argued, of pleasure and judgment between performer and audience?

I very much enjoyed editing "Playing and Playgoing" with my long-time collaborator Emma Whipday, and we are delighted to have been able to bring so many fantastic contributors together in that volume. In terms of my work on pleasure and judgement -- certainly music was one of the attractions of the playhouse, as well as something that people often seem to have been rather critical about (Ben Jonson complains about playgoers doing exactly this in the induction to "Cynthia's Revels"). Indeed, playgoers seem to have been critically engaged with many aspects of theatrical performance, from actorly technique to spectacle, and from wordplay to music, so I'm sure the prominent use of musicians would have fed in to this culture of censure.

What can we look forward to in your plenary discussion about the interactions between Twelfth Night and the court musicians playing?

An anecdote about my last Britgrad trip (in a tent in 2012); some inns of court musicians who insist on drinking all the wine when they should be preparing for the dancing; and hopefully a fresh sense of how "Twelfth Night" sits within the musico-dramatic culture of the inns of court in the seventeenth century.

Dr Smith's plenary will take place at 10am BST on Thursday 13th June in the Hall.

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