Interview with Susannah Carson (profile)

Susannah Carson's new collection explores the bard's impact on playwrights, academics, actors and writers. In our latest interview, Ms. Carson tells us of the time she played Miranda in a seminar, the plays she wished she could have seen, and how Hamlet may lie in everyone's shadow. By Matt Dorville


The title of the collection, Living with Shakespeare, seems so apt to the contributors and to all of us since, as you say, Shakespeare has become such a part of our culture that we live in Shakespeare's world. How did you arrive at the title?

The most important part of the title, for me, was to make sure to put the accent on the contributors – the book is less about Shakespeare himself and more about the relationships of those who have thought about him, written through him, and brought him to life on stage and on screen with a special degree of intensity and attention.

The title also is intended to capture the fact that Shakespeare isn’t a big brick of a book, but an experience which we have had, as individuals and as a culture, for four hundred years. Our ancestors lived with Shakespeare; we live with Shakespeare and we will go on living with him for longer than we can now imagine. So in another sense the title is meant to encompass the scope of these four-hundred-years-and-counting, as well as the ephemeralness of each moment: each performance or reading we enjoy is an act of life, as transient as anything that takes place in time.

Finally, the “living” in the title isn’t just that of the contributors, for they offer up their experiences to us so that we can go back to Shakespeare and have our own new experiences. It’s therefore about how each of us bring Shakespeare into our lives and bring our lives into our encounters with Shakespeare.

You state that the goal of the collection is to reacquaint readers with the Shakespeare they already love and help them get to know the trickier Shakespeare but I was wondering when you encountered each version? When did you first encounter the Shakespeare that is repeated so much in culture and when did you first decide to look deeper and find the trickier Shakespeare that lurked beneath the plot.

When I was four, my family lived in England. One of my earliest memories is of us visiting Anne Hathaway’s house in Stratford, and of being bought a “Read It Yourself” version of Cinderella in the gift shop – not Shakespeare, although I don’t believe that there were any plays to be had at that introductory level. As we walked back out to the car, I trailed just behind my father and mother and read the new book, and it went down in my short personal history as the first time I had ever read a book – as the series title encouraged -- by myself. Was it Shakespeare’s doing? Yes. I believe in literary ghosts when it’s convenient. And I do believe that there’s a special energy that we experience from our earliest days which gives literature – all of it, from reduced fairy tales to heavy, thought-provoking tomes – a special aura of magic and mystery. And I believe that Shakespeare, at the center of the Western Canon for comedy, tragedy, history, romance, poetry, and prose, is indeed the great magician who makes so much of our reading seem like a life-affirming, worthwhile endeavor.

The next part of the question is to do with starting to connect with the “tricky” Shakespeare. Despite high school readings and visits to see Shakespeare in both Ashland, OR and Stratford in England, it wasn’t until my senior year at Pomona College that I began to feel like the plays were mine too. Martha Andresen, who possesses an exquisite elegance in both thought and person, taught a legendary Shakespeare seminar. Among other marvelous remarks, I remember her suggesting that Othello is to do with how what we initially love about someone can so easily turn into the source of misunderstanding, fear, and hate. For me, that was the real-life key that unlocked not only Othello but also told me how to unlock the plays. Shakespeare only seems tricky. But if you work through the language, and you think through the relationships, and you focus on the heart of each character, you’ll find that each play contains simple truths. So any time you hear Shakespeare, or glance at the footnotes, or read reflections on Shakespeare, it’s not about making things more complicated, it’s about using whatever you can get your hands on as a treasure map to yourself. And, in the end, that “trickier” form of reading is actually not so very different from that first time you learned to read anything…

The collection contains a host of different actors that discuss Shakespeares plays in such a fun, lively way. I was curious, since they talk about so many different productions, if one, in particular, stood out to you as a production you wished you could have seen?

All of the Hamlets. I saw as many of the plays as I could in the archives, but I wish I could have seen Sir Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Tobias Menzies, and Rory Kinnear each be his own astonishing Hamlet on stage. As long as I’m wishing, could I see Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet at the Old Vic too?

We know that you are an author, editor and academic, having received a Ph.D. from Yale but have you ever acted in a Shakespeare play? Is there a role which you wish you could someday portray or wish you portrayed when you were younger?

At the end of Martha Andresen’s Shakespeare seminar, mentioned above, we were each to act a bit of The Tempest. To the dread and horror of my timid self. I was to be Miranda in 3.1, the scene in which Ferdinand is carrying logs and she comes up to him and allows herself to be wooed or rather – “Do you love me?” -- woos him guilelessly and with perfect success. The experience taught me two things. First: that if you read the play you might think Miranda a vapid ingénue, but if you try to be her then you realize that she is in fact one of the strongest characters in the play thanks to her very artlessness and honesty. Second: that acting is not straight declamation; that it is difficult; that it is an art – and as a result I have a profound respect for those actors who do more than nurture their celebrity platforms but who use the craft to truly and genuinely further our experience of the human condition.

Shakepeare has recently been reinterpreted in many exciting new fashions including comic books (Kill Shakespeare), musicals (the recent broadway plays of As You Like it and Cymbeline) and performance art (Off Broadway's Sleep No More). Is there a particular trend that you're the most excited about in Shakespearean adaptations?

Anything about Shakespeare that allows creators to be more fully themselves, and that helps us to find our own keys into the original plays, seems to me inherently valid. Some exercises resonate with me more than others, which is natural -- in fact, I think that disagreements and rivalries and spin-offs are a healthy, the-more-the-merrier component of any cultural phenomenon. I like that point made by Kill Shakespeare’s Conor McCreery that graphic novels, like plays, allow for an innovative pairing of show and tell. And I think that the interactive experience of Speak No More goes some way towards helping us understand that Shakespeare’s theatre was a communal, unpredictable, unlocked experience rather than a high-culture, quiet-in-your-seats, lazy spectacle.

I have to admit to a preference for the trend of making films out of Shakespeare plays – not filming Shakespeare plays, which is different and can sometimes be very dead – but using everything that film offers to expand what’s there in the originals. Inwardness, grandeur, suspense: all these can be done with a different effect on film, and I don’t think Shakespeare would mind the transpositions. Indeed, if Shakespeare were alive today, he most likely would be writing for the screen. To name a few: Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (with Ben Kingsley), Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus (also with Brian Cox), Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, Gregory Doran’s Macbeth (with Antony Sher and Harriet Walter), and the BBC’s Hollow Crown series of the history plays from Richard II through Henry V (with Rory Kinnear). 

Many of the writers in the collection comment on the love of Shakespeare's language and, as you mention in the introduction, Shakespeare is so much a part of our world that Shakespearean lines are a frequent occurrence in conversation. What is your favorite Shakespearean line? Also, is there one in particular you quote more than others?

I travel quite a bit, and whenever I step out onto a train platform, or finally emerge from an airport and take a first breath of someplace else, or make my way through a pressing crowd – whatever it is – I pause for a moment, look around, and think, “What country, friends, is this?” – Viola’s first line in Twelfth Night. It’s comforting that others have been some degree of lost and wandering too.

Now, I think it; I don’t say it, as another line never far from me is Lear’s “Let me not be mad”: the sane person’s only defense! I also think it was one of Shakespeare’s favorite lines – or at least one of the lines that haunted him the most – since what is writing but putting oneself on the delicate, dangerous edge between reality and illusion? There is more in that line than just Lear.

Harold Bloom, in the introduction, talks about how there's a lot of Falstaff in him, as well as a lot of the prince of Denmark. Is there any Shakespearean character in you?

Perhaps Hamlet is everyone’s shadow? He is dark and contaminating and self-hating – and misogynistic, which makes a closeness to him even more complicated if you’re a woman – and yet there is something vitalistic to his melancholy, and something comforting about hearing him ask those essential questions for us, and, as Dominic Dromgoole phrases it in his essay, by the end of the play he attains a state of grace.

As suggested by the line from Twelfth Night, I turn to Viola when I need lessons in how to survive shipwrecks, transform into someone the same but new, and turn tragedy into comedy with as much wit and good humour as can be found. Viola – along with Rosalind, Beatrice, and your favorite comedic heroines – are Shakespeare’s antidote to Hamlet.

There's many approaches at Shakespeare in this collection from Maxine Hong Kingston's teaching of Romeo and Juliet to F. Murray Abraham's sympathy for Shylock. Shakespeare has continued to be an obsession for actors, directors, novelists and academics. Why do you think Shakespeare though, above all other playwrights, novelists and artists, has had such a worldly appeal to such a variety of different artists?

My guess is that Shakespeare continues – and will continue – to invite various forms of artistic and academic responses because there are so many questions written into the plays and poems – and even into his biography. There are no straight answers. As soon as you think you can reach out and grasp an answer, you find it dissolve into a hundred new questions. Did Shakespeare use this technique on purpose? I think so, but it doesn’t matter – in the end, he couldn’t help it. His mode of writing was simply to create more mysteries than could ever be dispelled. And the result is that there’s room for all of us to bring our own answers into the works. 

We always end our interviews with the same question. What are you currently reading?

I’m a Falstaffian literary glutton, but I try to limit myself to three courses. I’ve been enjoying P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, which are perfectly bite-sized for travel. As main course, I’ve been revisiting Montaigne: I recently found some late-17th-century volumes in a Paris flea market and I adore the old type and musty smell -- they somehow ground the thoughts themselves. For dessert I’ve been reading Game of Thrones, since I’m interested in how both the BBC’s Hollow Crown series and HBO’s Game could draw so many viewers. What’s the difference between canonical Shakespearean histories and a pop-culture, faux-medieval epic? That’s for a piece I’m about to do with the gifted actor Tobias Menzies, who has done Game of Thrones as well as the Hamlet and King Lear he writes about in the book. Is the connection between the two works so far off? I’ve discovered that once you start looking for Shakespeare, you really can find authentic traces of his influence all around.


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