Final Day: A Bloody Good Play

The roses are blooming at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and it is time for us to bid London farewell.


We spent the day at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, just across the River Thames from St. Paul’s (and our hostel) via the Millennium Bridge. There we went through the Exhibition and had a tour of the theatre. We got to see the theatre in a state of transition: between performances of Titus Andronicus last night and this afternoon, the company was rehearsing Antony and Cleopatra — so the stage was half-swathed in the black that dominates the Titus set, with the red walls of Antony and Cleopatra temporarily unveiled.


For Titus, the triangular portion of the stage on the front wasn’t in place; instead, there were ramps running parallel to the stage in front. Usually the black cloths are not strung across the roof of the Globe. Those are in place specifically for Titus.

After a pleasant wait in (the very front of the) line, we made our way into the theatre. The Globe still adheres to early modern practices by having the yard as a standing-only section. Those standing in the yard are known as “groundlings” (a term that comes to us from Hamlet, incidentally). As the first ones in, we claimed spots front and center, leaning on the stage!

The performance was remarkable. Everyone warned us about how gory and violent it was. We thought, “We’ve read the play. We know how bad it is!” Many of us have also seen Julie Taymor’s 1999 film Titus, so we’ve even experienced a performance (albeit a film one). But there’s nothing like live theatre for gut-wrenching, visceral impact. At various points, many of us had to avert our eyes because the production was so shocking and violent.

And that’s much of the point of the play. Titus Andronicus, as Natasha pointed out in her presentation today, is a revenge tragedy, and its wild excesses of violence remind us how brutal and perpetually destructive the drive for revenge is. This is not a play that glorifies violence, though it features unutterable acts and ends with cannibalism. The point, always, is that Rome itself is dismembered, the body politic just as maimed as the bodies of the Andronici.

For most of the students (perhaps for all of them), today’s performance was one of the highlights of the trip, and I’m so delighted that they got to experience what a Globe performance is like. As groundlings, we were pushed and moved around to make way for the performers at various points; we were close enough that we got spattered with stage blood and the actors’ spit as they delivered their lines. A play at the Globe is interactive, dynamic, and exciting in a way that’s like no other theatrical event. We were so lucky to be able to see such a great performance!



Tomorrow we travel back. I’m so sorry to say goodbye to this amazing group! Keep your fingers crossed for good luck, good weather, and pleasant Tube journeys, flights, and drives home!




Day 18: Bath Free Day

For the second free day of the trip, students are visiting a variety of exciting places!

Gretchen, Andrea, John, and Zach have gone to Cardiff, the city in Wales where the TV shows Doctor Who and Torchwood are (or were) filmed. For those of you who haven’t heard of these shows, Doctor Who is a British science fiction show about an alien called “The Doctor,” who travels through space and time on a ship called a TARDIS. The show first aired in 1963, and to deal with actors who wanted to move on or retire, the showrunners in the 60s ingeniously decided to give the Doctor multiple “regenerations,” so that in the fifty-one intervening years there have been a total of somewhere around 12 Doctors (give or take one or two, depending on which parts of what things you consider to be legitimately part of the numbering sequence of the Doctors). The show was canceled in the 1980s but revived (to great popularity) in 2005.

Torchwood (2006-2011) was a spin-off of the new incarnation of Doctor Who, and it was not only filmed but also set in Cardiff. Doctor Who is really meant for kids; Torchwood was intended to appeal to those who wanted something grittier and more “adult.” Its fan following never quite reached the level of pop-culture omnipresence that Doctor Who‘s did, but it has a strong cult following, nonetheless.

Another group of students — Amara, Amy, Christina, Jessie, and Natasha — have gone to Sherborne Castle (also known as Sherborne Old Castle), the ruins of a twelfth-century castle in Dorset. The property was bequeathed to Sir Walter Ralegh by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. The castle there was already so dilapidated that Ralegh built a new lodge on the site, which then passed down to the Digby family in 1617 and has been in the family’s possession ever since. Sherborne New Castle is a Tudor structure, expanded over the years and still lived in, but this group is visiting the castle ruins (though once they’re on the site, they may also decide to visit the gardens of the New Castle as well — who knows!).

Chanelle, Courtney, and Tara have gone to Bristol, which is very near Bath. They plan to take advantage of Bristol’s shopping opportunities and to visit the oldest extant wood ship in the UK, in addition to other museums.

Finally, Jessica and Nicole have decided to forego using their free rail pass day in favor of staying in Bath to shop and explore. Bath does have spectacular shopping, and we haven’t had much time to explore the city itself yet (beyond walking to and from various sites, such as the Roman Baths and the Assembly Rooms).

As for me — well, I’m in Bath today, too, blogging from a cafe in Waterstone’s, where I have valiantly resisted the temptation to buy at least four different books. It turns out that it’s easy to resist temptation when I remind myself that whatever I buy, I have to carry! That hasn’t stopped some of ours from stocking up on books, though; I think Amara and Zach have both purchased somewhere around 15 books each. They should be congratulated on the efficient packing that allows them to fit all those books in their backpacks!

Tomorrow we visit Glastonbury, a site (like Stonehenge and Avebury) with a great deal of ancient history that makes it popular with Wiccans and others interested in the occult. Like other sites popular with the old religions (including Avebury), Glastonbury was co-opted by the medieval church, and an abbey was built there. Glastonbury Abbey used to feature the (purported) tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, and it was a popular pilgrimage site throughout the Middle Ages. But, like so many large and powerful abbeys and monasteries in the UK, it was destroyed in the 1530s when Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic church. His efforts to absorb the lands and wealth of the church into the English national treasury (or, alternately, to distribute the less wealthy/influential to favorites) are collectively known as the “Dissolution of the Monasteries,” a process that led to the obliteration of hundreds of thousands of works of art, not to mention the destruction of massive architectural treasures like Glastonbury Abbey and others.

We’re going to discuss Glastonbury’s connection to Arthurian legends, and if the weather is fine, we might go up the Tor. But for now, it’s time for me to find another place to work and possibly some lunch. I’m so excited for our final week and to share these last experiences in England with this wonderful group of students!

Day 11: Oxford Free Day (Plus Eurovision Primer)

Those of you who have been keeping up with the blog have seen a couple of students mention Eurovision. What, you may wonder, is a Eurovision?

Well. Imagine that the Olympics and American Idol had a baby, and then they raised that baby to enjoy performing flamboyant shows with lots of pyrotechnics and backup dancers.

Ukraine’s entry from 2009

Sometimes the backup dancers are also bird-men. Or trapped in a box. Or running on a giant hamster wheel.

I wasn’t kidding about any of those. Here’s the bird-man from Malta’s 2010 entry.

The Eurovision Song Contest is an annual event in which each country in the European Broadcasting Union submits a song entry to be performed on live TV, which is simulcast to every participating country. It actually predates American Idol by a long shot — it’s taken place every year since 1956. Residents of each member country can vote for their favorite performances, but they can’t vote for their own country. You may recognize some previous Eurovision winners: ABBA (Sweden), Celine Dion (Switzerland), and Julio Iglesias (Spain).

Probably fewer of you have heard of the 2006 winners, the heavy metal band Lordi from Finland.

There are two semifinals (the first was Tuesday night; the second is tonight), in each of which 16 countries perform. Twenty total of those 32 countries will advance to the finals on Saturday, where the “Big Five” countries will also join them: the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy, all of which have essentially bought their way into the finals by contributing substantial amounts of money to the production.

My room in this hostel is a family room, which includes a bunk bed that has a queen-size bed on the bottom and a twin-size bed on the top. There is also a TV in it and one chair. On Tuesday night, the fifteen of us all crammed into my room (with strict rules about how many could be on the bed — no collapsing bunks here, parents!) to experience the glories of Eurovision.

We will be engrossed in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The First Part of Henry IV during the Eurovision finals on Saturday, so we’re watching the semifinals instead. I think some of the students were surprised by how much they enjoyed the show! Here’s a video of the favorite performance of the night, Iceland’s:

As the hosts announced who would move on to the finals, we grew increasingly anxious. Nine out of the ten finalists had been revealed, and Iceland was not among them. Then the tenth was announced: Iceland! The cheer that went up was deafening! Everyone enjoyed the first semifinal so much that all are planning to watch the second semifinal tonight. Several asked anxiously whether we would be able to find out who wins the final on Saturday!

Now, when I created the syllabus, I scheduled two completely free days: one in Oxford and another in Bath. Before we arrived in Oxford, most students were talking about using the free day here to take a train to London for an extra day of exploration. But now that we’re here, they’ve all decided to spend their time exploring the (free!) museums of Oxford: the Ashmolean, which currently has a Cézanne exhibition; Modern Art Oxford; the Museum of Natural History; and the Pitt Rivers Museum. As is to be expected from the sort of student who would sign up for “A Literary Tour of England,” many plan to browse bookstores today, too, either the chain Waterstone’s or the various used bookstores (Oxfam and so on).

Meanwhile, their professor has spent a glamorous and exciting day in the hostel. I had grading and bookkeeping to catch up on, plus I had to do laundry due to an extremely unfortunate encounter between my shirt and some bird poop. Somehow washing that one in the sink (where I seem only to be able to get lukewarm water, though the shower is always hot) didn’t really seem adequate!

Tomorrow we visit Blenheim Palace, home of the dukes of Marlborough — a family that will be more familiar to most Americans by their surname: Churchill. Surrounded by the splendors of one of the most extravagant country houses in England, we will discuss Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play about the blurring of past and present in the very landscape and rooms of the English country house (and, not coincidentally, in the mental spaces of literature, too).

Until then, though, we’re hoping for a particularly outrageous set of Eurovision semifinalists!

7th-century chapel discovered at Whitby Abbey

On Easter Sunday, English Heritage (the organization that runs Whitby Abbey, Stonehenge, and Clifford’s Tower, all of which we’re visiting) revealed that archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a previously unknown chapel at Whitby Abbey. According to EH, the site dates to c620-680. Whitby Abbey was founded by the abbess Hilda in 657. In 664, church leaders in the north of England gathered there for the Synod of Whitby, where English church leaders chose to follow the rituals and calendar of the Roman church rather than the Celtic church. Cædmon, who is the first recorded poet in English and whose “Hymn” we’re reading, worked at Whitby as a laybrother during Hilda’s abbacy (657-680).


The chapel with the 13th-century Abbey in the background. (Source)

The Synod of Whitby was particularly important in that it set the date for Easter as the one the Roman church used, rather than the very differently calculated date used by the Celtic church. You can see why EH posted the news on Easter Sunday!

I don’t know whether we’ll be able to see the chapel excavations while we’re at Whitby; hopefully, we’ll be able to get close enough to take a look. In any case, this exciting discovery could illustrate what life at Whitby was like for Cædmon and his contemporaries nearly 1400 years ago. It also provides a sharp contrast to Bram Stoker’s gothic uses of Whitby’s post-Reformation ruins!

“Shakespeare’s” Dictionary

This morning, a couple of days before the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, a pair of booksellers in New York City revealed that they believe they have found a dictionary that belonged to Shakespeare. They detail their claims in a book called Shakespeare’s Beehive. Garrett Scott has posted a helpful overview.

Shakespeare’s dictionary! Since we know of no other existing books that Shakespeare owned, shouldn’t we be excited about this? Well, potentially — but not for reasons related to Shakespeare. The response of the community of Shakespeare scholars can best be described as a sort of skeptical interest. Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library published a clear and thorough blog post explaining why. One of the points that Witmore and Wolfe make is that the book is fascinating in its own right, regardless of whether Shakespeare actually wrote the annotations or someone else did. In fact, what I’m most excited about is not whether these are Shakespeare’s annotations, but rather that Koppelman and Wechsler have posted examples online, making this unique book a little more accessible to all of us.

As we visit Stratford-upon-Avon and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, we’ll be seeing a lot of Bardolatry (the idolization of Shakespeare as “the Bard”). I wanted to post these links so that (a) you all could take a look, if you’re curious, and (b) we could refer to them later in our discussions. What do we make of Shakespeare’s “Shakespeare-ness,” his overwhelming (overblown?) reputation as The Greatest Writer Of All Time? We’ll be seeing and reading a play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Thomas Middleton’s Roaring Girl, which is hilarious and wonderful. Why have we all heard of Shakespeare, but I’d wager none of you have heard of Thomas Middleton? I promise you that it has nothing to do with “quality”!