Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2016 (April 13, 2016 at 8:00 am)

Shakespeare and the Actor


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April 6, 2016 at 10:26 am

[S16] Shakespeare 

Questioning the integrity of Shakespeare’s work has been a centuries-long fixation of literature and theater aficionados. Often, the debate is over whether The Bard himself was the author of the acclaimed plays.

But there are also plays known as “the bad quartos,” plagiarized versions of Shakespearean works that were published alongside (and sometimes before) the originals. One such piece—a derivative of Hamlet written from memory by an unknown actor who had performed in the original production at the Rose Theatre in 1600—was reexamined and reinterpreted for the stage last fall by a group of intrepid Beloiters as part of a class called Shakespeare and the Actor.

This course focused on examining the relationship between text and performer by having students create a show for the stage. While reading makes up a significant portion of this English class, students also spend time immersed directly in the craft of acting, by watching performances and by acting themselves. The result was two performances of the bad quarto last December.

The class is taught by Assistant Professor of English Matt Vadnais, whose dissertation on The Bard’s printed works and early modern techniques of performance was a finalist for the Shakespeare Association of America’s J. Leeds Barroll Dissertation Prize. Vadnais has directed and acted in three different Shakespeare touring companies.

Beloit hired Vadnais specifically for his ability to focus on blending the study of Shakespeare and creative writing, a rare combination.

“That split between writing and studying Shakespeare … has been a tension for me my entire academic career,” he explains. It was also the impetus for the performance-based class. As Vadnais sees it, “The central equation of Shakespeare is to turn language into behavior” and to uncover the human aspect of the work.

To that end, Vadnais left many of the production’s artistic choices to the students themselves. It was their idea, for instance, to have four different actors playing Hamlet.

This theatrical democratization is also a crucial part of exploring the bad quarto’s role. Vadnais theorizes that it may be the original version of Hamlet—whether drafted by Shakespeare himself, or others. “The plays were written to be collaborative entities reconstructed through the collective genius of the whole company.”

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