Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Imaginative Geography, Comedic Arguments, and Rare Books...Oh My!

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

Before I begin, I have to point something out. This point may be obvious to everyone but me, God knows it took me long enough to figure it out, but Washington, D.C. is a special place. Take the word special with whatever size grain of salt. As I stood in the hallway outside the reading room at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I was confronted by two deep, penetrating eyes; I have no idea their original color, but the greyscale of the black and white photo took me to Ithaca and tales of a grey-eyed goddess of wisdom. The man in possession of these eyes would probably rather I compared him to someone more heroic, but I think the wisdom allusion is more apt. In this modern city of grasping greedy special interests, of wobbling wonky politicians, of emerging energetic arts of all kinds, a thread of American Exceptionalism that actually rings true stands proud and unnoticed by many: selfless, active charity.

In the shadow of the Capital dome that has come, for many, to represent the dysfunction and disappointment that has plagued the politics of the federal government, institutions sit that embody the best parts of American culture: that drive and desire to learn more, to know more, and, by virtue of the transformative power of knowledge, to become more present in the gifts of people like the Smithsons and the Folgers. Henry Folger could simply have locked away his collection, hidden it deep within his private home, and, Golem-esque, cooed over the brightly bound volumes of his collection. He didn't. I don't think it hit me how remarkable this fact is until today. While power is used as a billy club down the street, Henry Folger, in a way that would make Zeno proud, turned the power of his wealth into an open hand of learning.

Enough with my Orsino impersonation; what did we do today? After an early 7:45 AM departure, we arrived at the Folger Library and heard a talk from one of our resident scholars on the Imaginative Geography of Twelfth Night. We discussed the location of Illyria (near modern Croatia), its history of violence and reputation for pirates, and how this exotic and dangerous place shapes the ways the characters are and how they behave. There was also consideration of some of the domestic geography of places like the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of servant and served and the purity and power of the Garden as liminal (in-between) space. For example, consider how the garden wall encloses the space in Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation. Mary is seen as an enclosed garden, bearing fruit but never penetrated; therefore, she is without original sin.

This idea of Garden as liminal space arose from an analysis of Northrop Frye's "The Argument of Comedy." In it, Frye divides the spaces in a comedy thus:

  • City and Civilization: Law/Fathers are Harsh; Young peoples' desires are frustrated
  • Green World: Inversion of hierarchy; magic agent; disorder; sexual freedom and violence
  • Renewed Society: Law and society accommodate young people (Fathers are tempered); Young people adjust to social order (Young people are tempered); Lower-class individuals invited into society
The questions we asked about Twelfth Night in relation to this paradigm dealt with whether or not Illyria is a green world, or whether or not Malvolio, with the malevolent parting shot of "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you," is ever fully restored to the renewed society. This led to a discussion of characters as liminal representations, too. So much of Twelfth Night seems predicated upon disorder, and a disorder that seems only tentatively resolved at the play's end. Though, this tentative order is perfect for the twelfth night holiday, a time of inversion. This disorder is represented in Feasts of Fools where masters of the household would serve the table and the fool would sit in state at the head of the table.

Lastly, we discussed Viola as a liminal character, one who is "in standing water, between boy and man." Dr. Desmet explained that standing water was when the shore was stable between tides, suggesting that Viola exists as the ebb and flow, changing from role to role, living an in-between life.

After this engaging talk, we broke into seminars. These seminars are led by our scholars in residence. In our seminar, we discussed the following topics:
  • How the Play opens: one of our group members mentioned that he believed that the opening was practical for the play in that it sets up the idea to be discussed; given that Twelfth Night covers three months, people seem to do very little in the play (that is except the women who, as one person observed, seem to be "working their asses off.")
  • Orsino: emo, unstable, and love-sick, the initial descriptions we receive of him from others are all positive (see 1.2 and the discussion between the sea captain and Viola)
  • Olivia's role as head of household: Women in charge of households at the time is very unusual and places a certain burden on Olivia that she seems to want and at the same time wants to give away; one person speculated that Cesario's take charge and aggressive manner of wooing might indicate to Olivia one who could run her household (I mean, at least Cesario is there instead of pining away in his castle all by himself--Ors-emo)
  • Eunuchs: Yep. Apparently this reference alone would have conjured up an entire world of images and ideas associated with the exotic and far away lands of the Illyrians and Turks (this viewpoint was later supported by one of the rare books we saw that had drawings from a production of Twelfth Night; the drawings played heavily on the idea of the harem and other near/middle-eastern cultural icons)
  • Marriage: there are two types in Shakespeare's plays: 1) Dynastic and 2) Affective; Dynastic is the arranged, power-brokering type while Affective is that done for love
  • Toby as the parodic ghost of the absent (because they are dead) fathers in the play
  • Service: 60% of Early Modern English people were in service for some portion of their lives; llike Maria, middle or lower class people would work in close proximity with people of higher classes, and, also like Maria, perhaps end up marrying up in station; there was a remarkable amount of class mobility for such a regiment time and society
  • Sumptuary Laws: at the time, they were very harsh; the harshness was tied more to infractions of class than infractions of gender.
Having a scholar lead the group was both enlightening, informative, and transformative. For every cogent, salient point a seminar member made, the scholar was able to expand and deepen our understanding. This experience is another that you should consider invaluable and should lead you to apply for the next TSI.

For the bibliophile: After lunch, we were treated to a great presentation by one of the Folger librarians which included a number of rare books, and a first folio. Yeah. You need to apply. Some of the notable other volumes present were an early printing of Chaucer, a promptbook of an Augustin Daly production of Twelfth Night, two original Quartos of Romeo & Juliet, and the original novella that inspired Romeo & Juliet. Then, we traveled to the reading rooms to see the beautiful architecture (the stained-glass window depicting the Seven Ages of man, for example) and the extraordinary collection of the Folger library.

To close out the day, we did some curriculum. We discussed Peggy O'Brien's beliefs about teachers which underlie the Folger's Teaching Philosophy, available on their website. Then, we did two popular activities that some may have experienced at National Convention presentations: Slugs vs. Clods and Two-Line Scenes. Both of these are readily available online through the Folger's education website and lesson plan archive.

In sum, we expanded our knowledge of the library, saw wonderful things, and learned a lot about the depth of setting (internal and external) that shapes Twelfth Night. At the end of day two, our imaginative geography is rather crowded, and there is still so much more undiscovered country.


Jenna said...

Dear Mr. Bruno,

Thank you for this wonderful post. I have just joined the NCTE staff this month and am working in our DC office - what a joyful thing it was to read this first thing in the morning. You have captured something I too love about this city. It is a place where tremendous generosity butts heads with greed but live here long enough and the beauty of the "real" DC emerges on top. Also, I am really enjoying my vicarious learning experiences through your stories. I've never taken a class at Folger but many of the teachers I've worked with over the years have. What a truly fantastic place it seems to be!

-Jenna Fournel

Mr. Miazga said...
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Mr. Miazga said...

Thanks for sharing and bringing up such fond memories for me, having done TSI in 2008. Make sure you savor every moment and keep on writing; you'll be glad you did later as you sort through everything you've learned.