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Henderson explores many shapes of Shakespeare

Book examines 'Shake-shifting' for modern time, media
Diana Henderson
Diana Henderson

The works of William Shakespeare have a timeless quality, but it would be a mistake to imagine these "classics" have retained their adamantine purity despite the passage of time.

As Diana Henderson, professor of literature, shows in her new book, "Collaborations With the Past: Reshaping Shakespeare Across Time and Media" (Cornell University Press), even those trying "faithfully" to represent Shakespeare cannot do so, because the context in which his works were formed is gone for good. Instead, producers, writers and filmmakers must engage in "Shake-shifting," a collaboration in which both artists and the Bard give and take.

In four case studies, Henderson highlights "the rewards, choices and responsibilities of re-creating culture across time and media, and the ingenuity and difficulties of a collaborative model of artistic process. It is as much about art in the modern world as it is about the figure, legacy and plays of William Shakespeare."

Henderson's first two case studies center on novelists -- Sir Walter Scott, who recast "Othello" as an all-white drama for "Kenilworth," and Virginia Woolf, who made use of "Cymbeline" in "Mrs. Dalloway."

The second pair examines Shakespeare in new media by exploring film versions of "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Henry V."

"Performance cannot simply forget about history any more than the humanities can fail to address the present moment," Henderson writes. "Better to struggle, as did novelists as different as Sir Walter Scott and Virginia Woolf, with the legacies of a troublesome history; better to imagine, as have filmmakers and Shakespeare himself, selective glimpses of a past that art can and cannot represent, even as we indubitably reshape its meaning."

Shakespeare and his contemporaries have long been the focus of Henderson's research. Her previous books include "Passion Made Public: Elizabethan Lyric, Gender and Performance" (1995) and "A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen" (2006), which she edited as part of the Concise Companions to Literature and Culture series.

Henderson noted in a recent e-mail, "My interest in the importance of collaboration originated from my work in theater long before I came to MIT, but certainly there are analogies with scientific models of creative collaboration. It is a good balance to the 19th-century image of the solitary artist or scholar, the genius in isolation.��Being part of MIT's conceptually open, media-friendly literature faculty has been equally important, especially in encouraging my work on film and televised Shakespeare."

She added, "MIT also encourages us to think about the future as much as the past: In that regard, it helps humanities scholars keep in mind the need to connect their knowledge of the past with the immediate present and to imagine future directions and applications for our more contextualized, historical understanding of human achievement."

Henderson says her students at the Institute bring a fresh perspective to Shakespeare study. "I suspect this is the only place you'd be likely to hear a first-year student describe the four lovers in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' as a 'love quadrilateral.'"

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