Professor Goran Stanivukovic invited those attending his seminar to view earliest Shakespeare in a new light, and not as often is the case, as lesser or intrinsically inferior to later Shakespeare. The seminar entitled “Shakespeare’s First Act: literature, theatre, and the earliest years” begins by firstly qualifying what exactly defines “earliest early” Shakespeare and accessing the historical context and strange dearth of critical work on that period. 400 years after Shakespeare’s death has brought greater attention to the poet, and as the professor eloquently summarised “every act of memory is also an act of forgetting”. Given the large gap in time from the first performances to now, we are left to make educated guesses on certain points, and thus, often create myopic critical viewpoints.
We are given the time frame 1589 to 1594 as earliest Shakespeare, and are told we can assume the plays during this period were successful as they appeared in the first folio circa 1623. During this prolific period Shakespeare averaged two plays a year, acted, and created his “most dynamic, fastest moving plays”. Some words often used to describe this period are unripe, not mature or simply messy, however Professor Stanivukovic argues this limits literature criticism.
If Shakespeare studied formally and was classically educated as assumed, Professor Stanivukovic posits it would explain the repetitive nature of early Shakespeare dialectics. At the time rote learning was used whereby a student would translate something from Latin to English and then back to Latin to bolster their intellect. Stanivukovic gives the example of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy as a later example of this technique resurfacing. The professor further cites the writer Lewis, who has argued Hamlet might be closer to sixteen than the often assumed thirty, and if this is the case his dialectical repetition would certainly bear striking resemblance to that classical form of schooling.
Addressing the criticism of early Shakespeare suffering from bombastic tendencies, Stanivukovic argues that it is a misunderstanding of Elizabethan aestheticism where intricate patterns were considered higher art and hyperbole was used freely. Finally, addressing the much maligned yet persistent questions of Shakespearean authorship, Professor Stanivukovic traces the concerns to a singular anonymous pamphlet. In modern terms I would imagine the equivalent rant to be an angry online blog post or social media meme that defying all logic is afforded critical and intellectual validity in spite of common sense.
While my academic interests do not lie in renaissance literature, I came away with a new-found appreciation of Shakespeare’s early years. Early Shakespeare was profoundly ahead of his time, with elements of modernism that would not become staples of literature for another 300 years. While we cannot unravel the tapestry to time back to 1589, we can afford early Shakespeare the courtesy of further research and put aside asinine reductionist critical assumptions.
Stanivukovic, Goran. “Shakespeare’s First Act: literature, theatre, and the earliest years”. Research Seminar. University College Cork, Cork. 18 Oct. 2016. Lecture