SASiety Reviews: London Shakespeare Seminar

Disclaimer: the text below reflects our comprehension of Dr Borlik and Prof Bach’s research. While we aim to convey their thoughts and ideas accurately, this review merely shows our own understanding of those ideas.


On the 2nd November, IES held their monthly London Shakespeare Seminar via Zoom and we were overjoyed to be able to attend. In fact, we loved it so much we thought we should write a brief review of the event. The beloved bard is as necessary and relevant as ever, and scholars Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield) and Rebecca Ann Bach (University of Alabama) showcased this thoroughly in their talks. Their respective papers focused on bringing Shakespeare into conversation with relevant critical debates and theories, such as ecocriticism and animal studies. Dr Borlik focused on Timon of Athens and the Scottish Gold rush, while Prof Bach discussed the connection between time-telling, animals, and clocks in Shakespeare. Though this is merely a taster, you can find the recorded event and previous LSS events here.

Dr Borlik kicked off the event by contextualising Timon of Athens, a play that was interestingly never staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime. This, Dr Borlik argued, might have been owing to Shakespeare’s shrouded cauterizing critique of James I’s trading scheme of a knighthood for £300 investment in Scottish gold mines. From cannibalistic imagery to ostentatious gift-giving, the play showcases and underlines the power and importance of gold, Dr Borlik added. In fact, the flamboyant presents had a basis in real life with Bevis Bulmer, a mining engineer, known for his extravagant gifts. Bulmer had also been instrumental to King James I mining schemes. We also learned that one of Karl Marx’s favourite plays was Timon of Athens, since money’s real nature is seen as distorting the confounding of all natural and human qualities (in order for gold to be useful, it, of course, needs to be refined by human industry). Money, Dr Borlik added, is the truly creative power that rivals Shakespeare’s own; the play imagines a gold-induced extinction of the human race.

Dr Borlik, then, noted how the word “gold” in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens was capitalised. This, Dr Borlik argued, has a subliminal effect on the play since we are constantly exposed to upper-case “G”. The word “Gold”, thus, accumulates titanic force equivalent to a deity. This very interesting stylistic choice, however, also revealed the philosophical worldview during Jacobean times in relation to the precious gold. A topical discussion at the time was whether metals were alive: whether gold was begotten, whether it grew, whether it had veins and pores. Shakespeare reversed this disenchantment of scientific episteme. The capitalisation of the “g” also serves as a jolt to contemporary readers, Dr Borlik maintained. The capitalisation of the letter not only possesses a rhetorical force, but it also reminds us of the alterity of Shakespeare’s world. 

Prof Bach went on to discuss “Clocks and Cocks in Shakespeare: Time in the Creaturely World”. Bruce Boehrer and Molly Hand in their Cambridge Critical Concepts: Animals, Animality, and Literature (2019), said: “animal studies has sought, among other things, to understand the intense and perdurable imaginative pull that draws human beings to identify with non-human life”. This couldn’t become any more apparent in Prof Bach’s discussion about the extent to which non-human animal life was engaged with humans. In fact, Prof Bach informed her audience, humans throughout history organized time in relation to birds and time. The intimate relationships, she added, between birds and time were more central to human life than today. This reflects John Berger’s thoughts, too, who found that, before the 19t-century rapture, “animals constituted the first circle of what surrounded man. [….] They were at the centre of his world. Such centrality was, of course, economic and productive.”

Prof Bach argued that, perhaps, time-telling and the production of clocks could be seen as the beginning of capitalism. Domestic clocks, in fact, became more common in Shakespeare’s time, though his characters often made sense of their environment in terms of light/dark and the tunes of certain birds. Prof Bach gave the example of Romeo and Juliet, where two melodious birds are cited: the lark that woke Romeo up and Juliet mistook it for a nightingale: the former heralding the morning, the latter a bird of the night. Malvolio, on the other hand, of Twelfth Night, whose name might be translated as ‘ill-will’ is associated with clocks, human-constructed sense of time. He is seen “winding up a watch,” thus indicating the limitation of technology, and by extension the limitation of humans. 

Prof Bach then discussed Walter Benjamin’s ideas in relation to progress. She noted how according to Benjamin, labour exploits nature. The idea of progress says we can and should do what we want to do technologically as that will liberate the masses. However, for Benjamin, that is wrong: progress, rarely, if ever liberates the masses. In that vein, it is easy to see how characters like Malvolio appear to be enchained by the very objects that were meant to be a liberating force.

Both Prof Bach and Dr Borlik added nuance to what we might have thought about progress, the natural world, non-human animals and agency in Shakespeare’s time. This doesn’t only add to a very fruitful debate in Shakespeare Studies, but it also tackles our own presuppositions in relation to money, progress, and the animal.

Written by Elena Zolotariov, IES Phd Candidate.

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