An Emotional Celebration: Shakespeare, Past, Present & Future


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Sue Broomhall lecturing at the Institute of Advanced Studies at The University of Western Australia. Photo credit Sanna Peden.

This month, April 2016, there were a myriad of events celebrating William Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. London, as the site of his working life, naturally led the way in showcasing his life, literature and influence. However, that is not to say that West Australians had to miss out. This week the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (1100–1800), in conjunction with the UWA Institute of Advanced Studies, presented an evening devoted to exploring the multiple emotional facets surrounding Shakespeare and his work. The event was designed to bring to a public audience the research that many CHE scholars have been working on around Shakespeare, his life, his contemporaries and the emotions that we might uncover in those things today.


Bob White began the event with a video presentation in which he discussed the timelessness and global appeal of Shakespeare. Interestingly, this very global pull meant that Bob was at Asia House in London for an international conference concerning Indian Shakespeares On Screen.

Bob White (UWA), ‘Shakespeare and Emotions’ from History of Emotions on Vimeo.

My own paper asked how colour references make Shakespeare emotionally relevant. I discussed a range of colour references that provide visual and imaginative clues within Shakespeare’s texts that coincide with and illuminate the emotional register. Focusing first on the art of oratory in the play Titus Andronicus, I linked the idea of oratory within the text with the broken efforts of the mouth and the voice. Through the embellishment of colour, the emotions of aggression, loss and fear are heightened,

What subtle hole is this,

Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers

Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood

As fresh as morning dew distilled on flowers? (Titus Andronicus, 2.3.198–201)

My next example looked at the humoural colours of black and red in a passage from Hamlet which showed Hamlet retelling the story of Pyrrhus in order to meld humoural temperaments and colours to create fluctuations in both humoural and emotional balance. Hamlet aimed to move the players he was addressing with a visceral rendition of the story.

After a discussion on the emotional connections that could be made using facial colouring through examples from Love’s Labour’s Lost, I finished by considering Twelfth Night and how the clothing of characters was used specifically to demonstrate the relationship between stage clothing, colours and the arousal of emotions. The comedic example of Malvolio and his ‘not black in my mind, though yellow in my leg’ moment, as well as amusing the audience, shows how the early modern cultural associations of yellow with hope, youth and joy, and also love, marriage and jealousy after marriage, were all encapsulated in the leg Malvolio presents to Olivia.

Any audience of Shakespeare can marvel not only at the richness of his language but also the depth and breadth of his intertextual knowledge and references. Danijela Kambaskovic delivered a paper on ‘Shakespeare and Scholarship’, opening her discussion with Shakespeare’s depth of learning and how it is revealed in the text of his plays. His knowledge ranges, she suggested, over subjects as diverse as religion, Hebrew, law, medicine, astronomy, falconry, silk manufacture, cookery and the classics. Kambaskovic also pointed out that uncovering the depth of knowledge in his work leads us to appreciate more fully the subtext, which often reveals the emotions that underpin the plays. Interestingly, Kambaskovic noted that all of the plays have plots that can be traced to secondary sources, except The Merry Wives of Windsor – a citizen comedy set in the town of Windsor that deals with the social tensions and verbal distinctions that mark the negotiations within that society.[1]

In many categories Shakespeare makes technical references to practices that are also mentioned by his contemporaries. Thomas Moffat, for example, composed a work called The Silkeworms and Their Flies in 1599 while Shakespeare’s Othello mentions the ‘worms … that did breed this silk’ (Othello, 3.4.71), circa 1602. A discussion of the many and varied cooking terms used in Troilus and Cressida was proferred as evidence that the troubled pair of lovers were extending their time together by engaging in complicated food preparation. The many difficult skills associated with pastry making were described in plays ranging from Richard II to All’s Well That Ends Well.

Susan Broomhall considered the emotional significance of ‘House’ and ‘Home’ in her talk, with particular focus on the built Shakespearean environment in Stratford upon Avon and its environs. She began with a discussion of New Place, which Shakespeare purchased around the time of his son Hamnet’s death. Various emotional assumptions have been made about this, including the notion that Shakespeare was so grieved that he needed to move to a different dwelling to avoid constant reminders of his deceased boy. Needless to say, evidence to support this particular theory has not been forthcoming. However, with an astute assessment of the intricacies of Shakespeare’s will, Broomhall skillfully suggested that Shakespeare remained engaged in matters of both his business and family legacy.

Broomhall also hesitated to agree with interpretations of the will that suggest Shakespeare had less paternal feeling for his second remaining daughter, Judith, just because she received substantially less in the will than his other daughter, Susannah. Again, aside from a wish to maintain the family fortunes in a coherent parcel for future generations through Susannah, Shakespeare made sure to bequeath Judith’s portion directly to her in order to bypass her wayward husband, Thomas Quiney.

Touching on the subject of ‘the second best bed’ that Shakespeare (in)famously bequeathed to his wife, Broomhall suggested that as this was an interpolated bequest, on top of the usual one third of the estate which was Anne Hathaway’s due as his wife, and that it may have had a special meaning. The second bed was more likely to be the marital bed, which points to an emotionally thoughtful remembrance for his wife. A re-evaluation of our modern assumptions in light of the material evidence thus shows a different emotional register within the family dynamic.

Brett Hirsch began his video presentation with a look at the transient status of Peter Drew’s graffiti, featuring figures posing questions from Hamlet to passersby on the streets of Glasgow. This opened up an exploration of the instability of Shakespearean texts, in particular that of Hamlet’s opening soliloquy,

O that this too too solid/sullied/sallied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew. (Hamlet, 1.2.129–30)

The three different iterations of ‘solid’, ‘sallied’ or ‘sullied’ reflect the three different surviving versions of the text. Hirsch pointed out that these differences give rise to different textual interpretations and also have meant that editors have to choose in modern publications which version to privilege. However, with digital advances, colour, in line visual tags or typographical markers allow composite forms of the play to be presented to the viewer. Electronic versions can even allow the text to change in front of the reader, emphasising the slipperiness of the text.

Hirsch also explored how, from the beginning of his career through to the present day, Shakespeare’s works have been embraced in new media such as print and permanent playhouses. Alexander Graham Bell recorded Hamlet’s soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be’ onto a wax and cardboard disc in 1885, for example, while more recently The Royal Shakespeare Company and Mudlark produced a Twitter version of Romeo and Juliet. These and many more examples show that Shakespeare is, in Ben Jonson’s words, ‘not of an age but for all time’.

There are over five hundred references to music in Shakespeare’s plays, indicating the interest he had in exploring music as a medium for connecting with the audience. Indeed, the sounds of the lute and the viol were believed to be healing forces for the human spirit. With this in mind, the evening culminated with a moving performance by the Fine Knacks Ensemble group. Makoto Harris Takao, on bass viol, led the group, and was joined by Aidan Deasy on lute and soprano Carly Power.

Fine Knacks Ensemble group. Photo credit Sanna Peden.

Fine Knacks explored the soundscape of Shakespeare’s England through the music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They began with a piece by Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Dowland. Dowland was a musician famed for his art in expressing melancholy through music, and the piece, ‘Flow My Tears’, resonated with the composer’s own expression of melancholy.

A haunting piece by Robert Johnson called ‘As I Walked Forth’ followed, which tells of a man’s grief for his deceased lover. Johnson was known for composing a significant amount of incidental music and settings of songs for Shakespeare’s plays. Among the other pieces evocatively performed was ‘The Willow Song’, a song which is famously adapted by Shakespeare in Othello. In Othello, Desdemona sings the song, which has been adapted to suit a woman’s situation and anticipates her impending death. The group also performed ‘Take, O Take Those Lips Away’ from Measure from Measure, ‘Full Fathom Five’ from The Tempest, and ‘Where the Bee Sucks’, also featured in The Tempest.

Listening to such expressive and poignant pieces rounded off a diverse and stimulating evening, moving us‘with concord of sweet sounds’. (Merchant of Venice, 5.1.83)

Bríd Phillips is a PhD Candidate at The University of Western Australia

[1] In February 2016, a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Rob Conkie and performed by Melbourne’s ‘Nothing But Roaring’ Theatre Company, was performed at UWA. For a podcast discussing the play and this production, see

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