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Plenary Interview: Peter Holland

By Mary Davies, BritGrad 2018 Secretary


Originally posted: 14 May, 2018

Among the stars of Shakespeare academia we are thrilled to include in our plenary speaker lineup is Peter Holland, a central figure in performance-oriented Shakespeare criticism. Professor Holland is largely to thank for the creation of BritGrad – he initiated the first conference as then-Director of the Shakespeare Institute. He is now Professor in Shakespeare Studies and Associate Dean for the Arts at the University of Notre Dame.

Read on for what Professor Holland had to share about his current research, the Shakespeare Institute, and his life in academia.

Mary Davies: What areas of research are you currently working on, and what are you planning on speaking about at this year’s BritGrad conference?

Peter Holland: I’m currently writing a book about Shakespeare and forgetting. There are studies of forgetting in some areas of Shakespeare’s work but there’s no big, general book, and I think that as I get older, forgetting becomes more interesting than memory. So that’s where I’m currently working. What I’ll actually do for the conference slightly depends on a piece I’m about to start writing on Shakespeare [promotional] trailers, which I think is a hugely understudied area of Shakespeare and popular culture. If that paper goes well, that is what I want to give at BritGrad.

MD: You held the position of Director of the Shakespeare Institute from 1997-2002. How would you describe your experience of working at the Institute, and what impact did working in Stratford have on your research?

PH: Quite simply, the Institute is the most extraordinary intellectual community I have ever been a part of. To be in a space which includes so many graduate students, faculty, and visitors all working in the same broad area is a deeply satisfying experience. When I think of the Thursday afternoon seminars with 50 to 70 people, all of whom connect intellectually with the speaker’s topic – even though it may not be quite their topic – is an exceptional experience. If there’s one thing I miss most having left the Institute, it is precisely that sense of so many people to talk to about Shakespeare. That in itself transforms one’s research. Plus, the excellence of the Institute library – it really is a remarkable library – and also the availability of the Shakespeare Centre down the road. The research triangle in Stratford – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the Institute – is a perfect setting.

MD: In your opinion, what are the major differences between Shakespearean academia in the U.S. compared to the U.K.?

PH: I’m not sure there is a difference. There is still a tendency for British academics to be empiricists at heart, and there is always a tendency for people in the U.S. to be more concerned with theory than practice, so that the formalities of theoretical underpinnings for work are so much stronger and more visibly present. I think it is still the case that U.K. academics tend to be better at delivering papers at conferences. There’s a playfulness in the academy in the U.K. that I think is valuable. We tell better jokes.

There is a kind of professionalism in the U.S. that is, in some respects, admirable. I have recently returned from the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) annual meeting. The British Shakespeare Association, which I helped found, isn’t a professional organisation in the same way because its remit is to include school teachers and theatre professionals as well, whereas SAA is for people from graduate students upwards. There is a fascination in America with how you professionalise people, and how you prepare them for careers – it’s terribly rule-bound. One of the things that I wanted to make happen through creating BritGrad was to give people a gentler introduction to the experience of conferences, and a safer, slightly less threatening environment as a result. I am very pleased that the idea has lasted 20 years – I was surprised we got to year two!

MD: You have edited many Early Modern plays by different writers – Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, for example. What are the similarities or differences you have noticed in the process of editing when it comes to working with different playwrights?

PH: The differences have nothing to do with different playwrights. The differences have to do with the nature of the series in which one is editing. That is the primary determinant on the process. We have just been working on the editorial and style guidelines for Arden Four because I’m one of the three general editors. That controls how people do their work. When I did the Pelican Shakespeare (I edited six of the plays in that series), we were sent the sheets of the old Pelican version and asked to mark up on it any changes to text and to record our different glossings if possible on the page and if not clearly separately. Everything is conditioned by the series style. Editing The Alchemist is not very different from editing Midsummer Night’s Dream except that the Cambridge Works of Ben Jonson is one kind of edition and the Oxford series is a different kind.

MD: What advice would you give to students in pursuit of an academic career in Early Modern / Shakespeare studies?

PH: If one succeeds, the pleasures are immense. I have enjoyed the most wonderful career with amazing colleagues. I’m still awe-struck that I can just enjoy myself in terms of my research and the ways in which I pursue it day in day out. But it is so tough to get jobs. It is sad that it is still the case that so many people begin doctoral work with only one aim in mind: to secure an academic position. Yes, it is a great career, but there are other great careers, and I really would encourage people to think about alternative academic careers early, not late. The PhD is not only an apprenticeship towards a professional academic career. Think broadly, think early, because look around your cohort – how many of them will gain academic posts at all? It cannot be all of them. Enjoy doing the doctorate, think what else you might like to do, and pursue it.

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