Professor Gordon McMullan
What is your role at King's and within the London Shakespeare Centre?
I moved to King’s in 1995. Prior to that, I had been a doctoral student at Wadham College, Oxford, under Professor David Norbrook (who was a great supervisor), and then I took up a lectureship at the University of Newcastle in 1989. I moved from Newcastle to King’s as a Lecturer, became a Reader in 2001 and then Professor of English in 2007. I have directed the London Shakespeare Centre since 2013. I teach modules at undergraduate level in Shakespeare and early modern literature, including a second-year module ‘”A Mad World, My Masters”: Performing Culture in Jacobean England’ and a third-year module “Late Shakespeare”, both of which I share with my colleague Lucy Munro. At Master’s level I created, and for a long time convened, the MA in Shakespeare Studies which we teach jointly with Globe Education and for which I offer the option ‘Theatre, gender and culture in Jacobean London’ as well as sharing the methodologies module with colleagues.
My research interests over the last decade and more have been twofold – in Shakespeare and early modern theatre, both as a critic and as an editor, and in the idea of late style or late-life creativity, interests which merged as I wrote my book, Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing. My principal scholarly task over the last eight years, however, was to serve as a general textual editor of the Norton Shakespeare, 3rd edition, which involved overseeing, with my co-general textual editor Suzanne Gossett, the creation of a new text of Shakespeare’s plays by a team of forty editors. The previous two editions of the Norton Shakespeare used the groundbreaking text created in the early eighties by Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett and William Montgomery for Oxford University Press, but Norton decided it was time to create its own text, and general editor Stephen Greenblatt offered us the opportunity to take on a project we found, you won’t be surprised to hear, both exciting and daunting. Together, Professor Gossett and I decided the editorial premises and created guidelines and, over the last several years, we have supervised and checked the work of a team of distinguished (and some neophyte) editors – quite a task, in other words. Along with my work as a general editor of Arden Early Modern Drama (the sister series of the Arden Shakespeare), this has kept me fairly quiet for the last while.
What first drew you to Shakespeare and Early Modern studies?
Good question! I started out, you’ll be horrified to hear, by working on a PhD on American literature of the 1920s, but soon realised – prompted in part by a friend who was working on Middleton – that my heart lay with Jacobean theatre. So I switched and have never regretted it for a moment (though I retain a fondness for American lit). I suppose the truthful answer would be that, when I was sixteen or so, one of my teachers took us to see the Russian film of King Lear, directed by Kozintsev, which is wonderfully bleak and has a gloriously doomladen soundtrack by Shostakovich, and I loved the sheer epic misery of it all. Lear was one of my A-level set plays, so I became very immersed in it and loved all forms of unpleasant Jacobean revenge drama. So I suppose it began with that. Then as an undergraduate at Birmingham I went to Stratford a lot and saw productions featuring Derek Jacobi, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson, Sinead Cusack and others – which of course I took for granted, but I was seeing the emergence of a remarkable generation of Shakespearean actors and this must have helped me get a sense of the energy and excitement of Shakespeare in performance. Since that time I’ve been fortunate to be involved as textual adviser in various RSC and Globe productions – notably Greg Doran’s productions of Henry VIII (which I edited for Arden) and The Taming of the Shrew and of Fletcher’s Island Princess and Tamer Tamed, and more recently the Globe’s production of Henry VIII – which I suppose all stemmed from that early exposure to the RSC’s work.
But in truth it’s the beauty of the language in the plays, the intensity of the cultural work they do, and the way they open up for anyone who immerses him or herself in them a whole range of ways of seeing the world and reflecting on and developing your understanding of what makes people and cultures tick and what drives us to behave the ways we behave and what makes us love each other and hate each other and what makes people seek to dominate, control and oppress others and what makes people seek liberation from that oppression – it is these things that I love so much about the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
What are you currently working on? How does your research inform what we do at the London Shakespeare Centre?
Over the last three years or so I have been very busy with the Shakespeare400 consortium, one product of which has been my co-editing, with British Library curator Zoë Wilcox, of the book accompanying the BL’s major Shakespeare exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which runs April-September 2016. I have also written a new introduction to Oxford University Press’s reissue of Israel Gollancz’s Book of Homage to Shakespeare 1916. And I have co-written a book, with Philip Mead, Kate Flaherty, Ailsa Grant Ferguson, Mark Houlahan and Catherine Moriarty, entitled Antipodal Shakespeare: Remembering and Forgetting in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, 1916-2016 (forthcoming from Arden Bloomsbury, 2016), which has emerged from work Professor Mead and I did courtesy of an Australian Research Council grant (2010-13) entitled “Monumental Shakespeare”, for which we undertook comparative (“antipodal”) research into modes of Shakespearean memorialisation in London and in Sydney at the time of the Shakespeare Tercentenary in 1916. This work connects with a range of LSC interests including global Shakespeare, cultural history, memorialisation studies and performance history.
Over and above my Shakespeare-specific work, I have also extended my interest in late style. A collection of essays, Late Style and its Discontents: Essays in Art, Literature, and Music, co-edited with Sam Smiles, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016, and I have also been working on a further collection of essays, to be edited with David Amigoni, entitled Beyond Late Style: Rethinking Late-Life Creativity.
What do your students get out of studying Shakespeare and his contemporaries?
Practically, the answer is – as far as the MA is concerned – an ideal grounding in the origins, nature and analysis of Shakespeare and early modern drama and in the critical and performance culture that makes up ‘Shakespeare’ in the twenty-first century, so that they can go on to progress in their chosen career, whether that is the PhD – and of course we hope very much to keep a good number of our Master’s students as PhD students at King’s, helping them find their way into the academic profession – or the world of arts administration and education – former MA students now work for the Globe itself or for the ENO, Covent Garden, the Gate theatre in Notting Hill, and so forth – or all sorts of other career possibilities. Also, we have a useful track record in helping American MA students to return to a high level of doctoral programme back home – so, for instance, some years ago, one student came to us from Notre Dame and then went back to the PhD programme at Columbia. We have very good connections with American Shakespeareans and can help place potential PhD students in the right programme – unless of course they decide they can’t face leaving London, in which case we welcome them back with open arms as doctoral students at King’s!
But of course there are far more answers to your question than the practical ones. It’s hard to say just how many different ways studying Shakespeare can affect you. After all, the Shakespearean text has been at the heart of pretty much every major development in critical culture in the anglophone world and beyond, so becoming conversant with Shakespeare’s plays and their origins and circumstances means that a student can have an unprecedentedly broad engagement with the critical field of English. And, more to the point, what better way could there be to spend a year or two than being immersed in the magnificent writing that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights produced in the decades of the most remarkable era for theatre that there has ever been?
What are the most rewarding aspects of teaching Shakespeare in London?
I’m very lucky indeed to teach Shakespeare where I do. London simply must be the best place in the world to teach Shakespeare. How could it be otherwise? He left Stratford and spent his life in London and we only have to step out of the front door of King’s to walk where he walked and see many of the sights that he saw, despite the changes wrought by the Great Fire and subsequent development. King’s is on the Thames, just across from the National Theatre, just along the river from the Globe – which of course enables us to work closely with Globe Education, which has been the most wonderful experience for the last ten years – and we are a few minutes’ bus ride from the British Library, the best library in the world for the study of the material we love. So we simply couldn’t be better placed.
At King’s we’re fortunate to teach wonderfully smart, engaged, lively, worldly students – the department is fortunate to be pretty much swamped in applications every year – and we get to teach an enviable range of people from all over the world at MA and PhD level, which we enjoy immensely. We also appreciate very much the number of mature students we get to teach: it is a fine experience to see people who missed out at the usual post-secondary-school level come back into higher education later on and really make the most of the opportunity, knowing what a privilege it is to spend a year or more working on these wonderful texts and the profound range of approaches it’s possible to take to them.
Does your work involve collaboration with any of our external partners? What have been the benefits of working in collaboration with others?
Absolutely it does! We work very closely with a unique and unprecedented range of cultural partners in and around London, as our leadership of the Shakespeare400 consortium, celebrating the Shakespeare Quatercentenary in 2016 with twenty-five of London’s leading cultural and creative organisations, makes very clear: for the full list of partners, see http://www.shakespeare400.org.
The founding cultural partnership for the LSC is the one we share with Shakespeare’s Globe – specifically with Patrick Spottiswoode, director of Globe Education, and Farah Karim-Cooper, head of Globe Research – who are both wonderful collaborators. The relationship with the Globe has been a major defining experience of my time at King’s, enhancing beyond measure both our provision for our students (at BA as well as MA and PhD level these days) and our own experience of engaging with Shakespeare. I have loved working with the Globe people – they are so energetic, so excited by the plays and the possibilities – and they are also very good at not overstating what the Globe experience can mean: they do not claim some sort of ‘authenticity’ but rather they acknowledge that the experience you have when you’re in the Globe is a ‘third’ kind of knowledge – not knowledge of the original theatre but knowledge of something poised, as it were, between the conditions of Shakespeare’s own Globe and a modern theatrical space – and that ‘poise’ seems to me to be wonderfully productive of questions and quests. I can no longer imagine my role in London without the Globe collaboration at its heart. And of course for students on the MA in Shakespeare Studies, the Globe offers unparalleled access to their corridors, their events and even to the Globe stage itself!
Equally important, of course, is our close collaboration with the British Library, with whom we run our MA in Early Modern English Literature: Text and Transmission. Not only have we shared the MA with them for many years now, we have also been involved, in the build-up to 2016, in the BL’s major Shakespeare exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts.
Cultural partnerships of this kind – I’m thinking also of our co-curation of the By Me William Shakespeare exhibition with The National Archives, our involvement in repertoire choice and our curation of the pre-performance talk season for the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2016 season of Shakespeare-related music, the doctoral supervision I share with the Royal Librarian at the Royal Collections in Windsor, and the series of animations created by Film London inspired by the work of one of our PhD students, Sally Barnden – are central to the London Shakespeare Centre’s vision of Shakespeare scholarship, and we encourage all our students to immerse themselves in cultural activity as a means both to ground and immeasurably to enhance their engagement with early modern literature and culture.
Is there anything you'd like to say to students thinking about applying to study with us at King's?
Apply! And if you have questions, please ask. We respond as rapidly as we can to e-mail inquiries (if there’s a delay it usually means we are either up to our eyeballs in examining or away at a conference, and we will reply as soon as we can).
I welcome applications for the doctorate across a wide range. Pretty much anything in Shakespeare and early modern drama, in critical or performance history, in textual/editorial matters, in intercultural (especially Australian) Shakespeares. Also in late style, in late-life creativity, in cultural and visual history, in the representation of animals and birds. I’m open to suggestions, basically. Current PhDs I’m supervising are in early modern theatre space, in notions of delay and the gendering of deferral in early modern culture, in the history of the blush, and in the representation of gossip. In the past I’ve supervised in company repertory, disguised-ruler plays, midwives and bawds.
To potential applicants for the MA in Shakespeare Studies, I want to say that I see the MA as pretty much unique as an English department MA, in that it is of equal value to people who wish to do the PhD and perhaps carry on in academic life and to people who want to do just one further year of self-contained study of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and are perhaps in particular looking for a way in to the world of theatre, arts administration and so forth. Both groups of students thrive on the programme and we seek a really diverse, engaged body of students informing and stretching each others’ perspectives. Of course it does need to be remembered that the MA is an academic degree that operates at a high level and that a good BA and the submission of a good undergraduate essay (an ‘argumentative research paper’, in US terms) is essential to admission. I sometimes get inquiries form students who are not especially comfortable with critical writing, with the production of essays – people with strictly performance training, for instance – and I do have to underline that the degree is an English department degree taught collaboratively with a theatre and that its standards of scholarship are identical with those of equivalent Master’s programmes in other areas in the department, not least the sister degree, the MA in Early Modern Literature that we teach with the British Library. The MA is not in itself a ‘refresher’ course in Shakespeare; it assumes applicants have already found ways to ‘refresh’ their undergraduate study if it has been a few years since they last wrote an essay. But you’ll be amazed by how it comes flooding back, if the excitement is there!
And my cry remains the same. Apply! We look forward to welcoming you to King’s.
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