Dr Peter Kirwan
Lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama
School of English
University of Nottingham
1. After your first forays into Shakespeare, what drew you further?
Shakespeare was unlocked for me during my undergraduate years by my relocation to Warwickshire and the chance to see Shakespeare performed regularly at Stratford-upon-Avon, by the Royal Shakespeare Company and visiting companies. What excited me, and kept me coming back time and again to the plays, was the multiplicity of each text. To see Hamlet reimagined as a commentary on South African apartheid, Othello as a treatise on aging and King Lear as a satire of a globalised economy fired my imagination. The more I watched the plays as well as reading them, the more possibility I saw in each of them for reinvention and application to the times, breaking away from a fixed meaning and instead providing the raw material for theatre practitioners to communicate essential ideas across cultures, languages and ages.
2. Why did you end up falling in love with his language? Are you more enamored of another element of his work?
The language is significant, but there’s much more to it than the words. Shakespeare is a great poet of silence, for example — I’m fascinated by the spaces between the words that shape how the words are received (Isabella’s famous silence at the end of Measure for Measure is just the most obvious). For me, it’s Shakespeare’s command of three-dimensional stagecraft that draws me back time and again to the plays: the doubling of stage images, the use of horizontal and vertical space, the juxtaposition of characters and positions, and the constant interplay with the theatre itself.
3. Do you have a favorite play?
This may sound deliberately obscure, but I’ve always loved Henry VI Part Two. It’s rarely performed or read on its own, being the second part of the Henry VI trilogy, but I think it’s one of Shakespeare’s liveliest plays, moving from the political machinations of Henry’s feuding uncles to the wonderfully anarchic riots of Jack Cade, that show the world turned upside down and the play descend into carnival. It also features the emergence of the future Richard III, some potent scenes of witchcraft, and some hugely entertaining comedy.
4. Do you have a favorite sonnet?
A performer I love, Gavin Friday, gave a version of Sonnet 40 in Stratford in 2006 which has haunted me ever since. The final two lines, ‘Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,/ Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.’ were sung repeatedly as he left the stage, and created a haunting echo around the theatre. That closing line, ‘Kill me with spites YET we must not be foes’ employs one of Shakespeare’s favourite tricks, the mid-line turn, and carries something deeply painful yet, I like to imagine, hopeful.
5. What advice would you give to high school and college/university students engaged in the study of Shakespeare? How may they best learn to understand and, ultimately, appreciate his language?
Get thee to a theatre! If you can’t access professional Shakespeare performance, then put it on yourselves — you don’t need money, you just need time and a few copies of the script. Shakespeare was a live poet — he understood the sound and flavour of words, the audible effect that they have. Read every speech again and again, playing with the emphasis and tone. Don’t try to ‘solve’ the lines — there isn’t one key meaning you have to get out of them. Play with the possibilities, the many and varied interpretations of the plays that are available.
Dr Kirwan specialises in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, both in the early modern period and in later iterations. Particular areas of specialisation include: authorship, collaborative and disputed plays, contemporary performance, book history, screen adaptations and editorial history.
He is Book Reviews Editor for the journal Early Theatre, sits on the advisory boards for Digital Renaissance Editions and Apocrypha Redivivus, and is currently co-leading a project on Shakespeare in the Digital Age with the University of Birmingham.
He teaches broadly across the School’s drama modules and specialises in the areas of early modern literature and drama. Teaching interests include historical plays in performance, stage and screen adaptations, performance theory and the historical contexts of literature.
His main research interests are in the history and reception of early modern drama in print and performance, spanning the late sixteenth century to the present day. As part of the AHRC-funded team working on Collaborative Plays by Shakespeare and Others (PIs: Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen), his work seeks to interrogate easy binaries between canonical and disputed plays and situate the plays of the ‘Shakespeare Apocrypha’ within their historical contexts.
Dr Kirwan also runs The Bardathon, a Shakespeare review blog. Originally set up in 2006 to chronicle the RSC Complete Works Festival, The Bardathon chronicles new productions of early modern plays around the UK, as well as related films, documentaries, books and events. The blog aims to combine the analysis of academic criticism with the quick format of the journalistic review.