by Dorie Perez
“I’d sit at the back of the room to present this paper,” said Rhea Riegel, a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Humanities graduate group and a 2014-2015 Center for the Humanities Graduate Fellow, “but that’s not what a real trickster does.” Real tricksters, like the infamous literary figures Puck from the plays of William Shakespeare and Robin Goodfellow, the archetype that Robin Hood is based on, do their dastardly deeds with an eye towards the future. Riegel says they offer an example of alternative behaviors where social change fosters a rethinking of social roles during moments of upheaval. Tricksters do the important work of challenging or, invariably, reinforcing social roles and morays that the public must then reproduce.
Riegel’s work on Early Modern English literature includes the literary canon of Robin Hood, known to 17th Century readers as Robin Goodfellow. Robin Goodfellow’s “punishment” for bad behavior is to reset “wrongs” – lecherous uncles are whipped and bawdy women dunked in duck ponds to the delight of spectators learning a collective lesson. Humor itself is seen by scholars like Riegel as setting up social conditions for commentary or a rethinking of codified relations. The types of humor that tricksters use are up-ending, but not the full satirization of current events that the modern reader may be accustomed to. Satirical activism as a brand of humor is distinct from situation comedy. Whereas satire disrupts, comedy reaffirms social “truths”. Allegorical tales of lessons learned – Robin Goodfellow punishes rather than scolds, acts rather than relays messages like angels and other divine messengers – making his role in Western literary tradition social rather than based on religious canon or politically attuned to current events of the Early Modern era. His actions serve, in the Foucauldian sense, as correctives of behavior, a task seen as a shared social responsibility.
Another trickster figure Riegel centers her study on is that of Moll Cutpurse, a composite character purportedly based on a real figure in history who challenged gender norms by dressing in masculine clothing to trick unsuspecting targets. Cutpurse becomes the embodiment of changing gender norms during a period of intense social upheaval. The events of the 17th Century in England were incredibly disruptive; the English Civil War, religious strife among warring Catholics and Protestants, the Great Fire of London and the death of Charles I on the orders of a newly-empowered Parliament served as unsteady social ground to negotiate. Trickster figures flourished in the work of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries as ways to reorient audiences to a dynamic reality of changing norms they would then need to make sense of.
By Dorie Perez
Dr. Raquel García, a newly minted doctoral graduate visiting Merced from our sister UC campus, UC Davis, presented work that was part of her recent doctoral defense and long-standing research project. She writes about the political nature of Mexican comedy as something transgressive, a newly popular form of entertainment that comes to Mexico by way of the traditional North American comic’s role as entertainer-come-social commentator. Yet the tropes of stand-up comedy that many American audiences are familiar with – the Jerry Seinfeld-style routine of humorous critique offered up to a crowd looking for both commonality and shocking amusement- are new to Mexican audiences, even in the boundary-pushing performance arts community within Mexico’s cosmopolitan districts. It is a testament to cultural diffusion and the growing space for social critique in a country with strict rules about private and public spheres that stand-up’s popularity as a medium is growing.
García identifies several key elements at play in her analysis. García discusses the role of performance as its own manifestation of transgression from socially-accepted norms in Mexican society. The play-acting, the “just kidding!” qualifiers that comedians add to their politically astute analysis of historical inequities in Mexican society are indeed played for laughs, but their meaning is clear. A strong critique of the role of political and governmental corruption in everyday life, including the dominant power regimes of the narcotic-trafficking cartels that run great swaths of Mexico’s countryside are main targets, even as the comedians themselves equivocate their jokes as mere humor. Comedians Horacio Almada, Manuel Nava and Jürgen Scritto are included in García’s analysis, and her observation of their practice adds an ethnographic layer of analysis to the discourse they have created that reads as a new modality of resistance. All three comedians are centered in Mexico City, and they maintain a social media presence as a way to both reach out to transnational audiences and re-inscribe their work as social commentary meant for both the Twittersphere and the political landscape they live in as Mexican citizens.
In a heavily Catholic country, Almada’s humor that centers on the dogma of the Church and its frequent hypocrisies is a high wire act, yet the responsive nature of his audiences (seen as Youtube footage in García’s presentation) shows that he’s struck a vein of truth that many share and are even eager to have deconstructed. In a passionate fury, he acts out both the argument of the devoted and that of the priest admonishing his flock, asking about heaven and hell and wondering where he will go if he refuses to commit murder but misses Sunday mass. García includes this bit as a moment signifying the comic’s role as arbiter of truth, or rather, a shared frustration, that many social-media savvy, contemporary Mexicans enact within the confines of a more traditional society. Through comedy, García argues, the pressure valves of duty and propriety are released for both Mexican audiences and a socially-aware comic eager to showcase his vision of the world gone topsy-turvy.
by Dorie Perez
Shakespeare was coasting on his laurels when he wrote Cymbeline, one of his last works for the theater, and that wasn’t a bad thing. The literary great was sure to add all of his favorite elements to this dramatic work, weaving comic absurdity with historical narrative and familial strife that, happily, wraps up on a high note. Often overlooked, the play’s high energy and whackamole-style cast of characters cropping up at inopportune moments was showcased by the obvious love and attention taken by the local theater company, Merced ShakespeareFest, to put on the production and create collaborations with the local academic community. The Center for the Humanities at UC Merced played host to the Merced ShakespeareFest’s Fall 2014 production of Cymbeline; its disparate plot echoes the Center’s biennial research theme: “The World Upside Down: Topsy-Turvy.”
Hieke Hambey, Merced ShakespeareFest’s founder and executive director, introduced the play to over 100 audience members on the grounds of UC Merced’s new Wallace-Dutra outdoor amphitheater. This venture between both the local company and the University of California at Merced was the first of its kind, and the broader impact of such a partnership was visible. The play drew mixed audiences from both the larger community and the campus, filling the amphitheater for a full two-night’s run. The play, which continued its scheduled performances in Applegate Park the following weekend, centers on the lovers Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus, who are separated by royal decree and brought back together by farce. Musical interludes offered up by local musicians Evan Hall and Soheil Fatehiboroujeni added an unexpected twist, furthering the quirky take on classic Early Modern themes of mistaken identities, flexible gender presentation, ignoble monarchs and devious servants.
Dr. Katherine Steele Brokaw, assistant professor of literature at UC Merced, served as both the lead actress and dramaturg. Her love of Shakespeare and community theater rings clear: “I like the feeling of giving back to the community through working with Merced Shakespearefest and Merced County Opera in the Schools, both of which have benefited from Center for the Humanities grants.” This is the first time that the ShakespeareFest theater company has had part of their work shown on campus, and Steele Brokaw agrees that these types of community connections have a regional impact. “While there is much scholarly merit in these collaborations, I think that it is even more important that these collaborations are ensuring that the performing arts reach more undergraduates, graduates, faculty, staff, schoolchildren, and community members of all ages and backgrounds in the Central Valley than ever before.”
by Peter Vanderschraaf
Katie Brokaw’s essay is the culminating part of her overall book project Staging Harmony, that focuses on important contributions to English drama from 1450-1611. For me, studying Brokaw’s essay is proving both a special treat and a formidable but valuable challenge, coming from philosophy (with scant background in literature) and specializing in branches of moral and political philosophy with roots in the early modern philosophical era that begins almost immediately after the composition of The Tempest (with Grotius’ Free Sea). Brokaw argues that in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest Shakespeare’s writes in a “spirit of finding amicable [and not merely peaceful] coexistence between word, art and ritual (p. 4)”. The discussion here focuses on the role of music (and sometimes dance) in The Tempest.
Some questions/comments for consideration:
- This essay discusses primarily The Tempest, written in 1610-1611. Is there a special reason for ending the analysis at 1611 (beyond perhaps the fact that The Tempest is one is Shakespeare’s late plays and Shakespeare is the greatest playwright of his and maybe any era to write in the English language)? Staging Harmony will discuss important contributions to English drama from 1450-1611. Historical tidbit: The London Puritans succeed in having the theaters closed in 1642 until the Restoration.
- I agree with Brokaw that interpreting The Tempest as a work arguing for accepting a certain diversity of religious belief and practice makes very good sense. I’m wondering about a possible outlier: the Puritans. My impression is that Shakespeare makes no attempt to “bring the Puritans to the table” in The Tempest. If that’s right, a dull explanation is that Shakespeare may have thought there was little point in trying to appeal to this part of his English culture (since the Puritans would at best ignore his art form anyway). But (again if I am right) could there be a more interesting explanation, namely, that Shakespeare is taking a stance regarding the (now old) question of “tolerating the intolerant”? (I think we face this problem all the time.)
- Very quick comment/question: As Brokaw observes, James I was fairly tolerant of religious nonconformism even in his own court. But (as I recently discovered) James had quite interesting ideas about sovereignty. Here’s a quote: “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing on earth. For kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods. . . .” Does Shakespeare express a view about sovereignty in The Tempest? (If not it certainly is not a problem for Brokaw’s project but I thought it might be interesting to know about.)
- I found Brokaw’s discussion of how people of the time viewed music and its power particularly striking. As Brokaw observes, they connected music with science (”music of the spheres”) and the occult in ways we’re not used to in our time. Just an observation: I wonder if this is another way in which The Tempest reflects what I keep calling the pre-modern tradition (because unlike in the pre-modern tradition, specific discussion of music is largely absent among the early modern philosophers and my impression is that these days, aesthetics is thought of as a “luxury” specialization.)
- Ditto for the short but very interesting discussion of sympathy. In Shakespeare’s time sympathy apparently had a wider meaning than in our time, reflecting harmony between music and the natural world as well as harmony between people. For reasons I don’t know (and maybe Brokaw does), in the English-speaking world I think the scope of our thinking about sympathy became narrower (roughly, for the moderns and maybe for us, to sympathize is to mentally put oneself in the place of another) as it started to make a more explicit and important role in English moral philosophy (such as Hume’s “judicious spectator” and Smith’s “impartial spectator”).
- Why bother raising the earlier insubstantial question about time period? Comment: My impression is that Brokaw’s interpretation can be thought of as representing a culmination in England of thought regarding relative toleration of diverse religious belief and practice (and maybe artistic practice)? (For example, as Brokaw observes recusants in James’ time were common and Roman Catholics were able to practice their faith — my impression is that places where Catholics could participate in the mass were like “speakeasies.”) From Brokaw’s essay (which I find compelling) I think one can conclude that Shakespeare advocated what one might call a “great society” view (plug for my philosophy colleague Jerry Gaus) whose members not merely accept but appreciate and learn from their differences (as opposed to a modus vivendi view of pluralism decried by Alasdair MacIntyre). The contemporary counterpart is modern politically liberal society (if you approve of it) or “the degenerate West” (if you don’t). Anyway if this is right so far, then what follows and the philosophical response (and you knew I would try to smuggle in some philosophy) are an interesting contrast. The Thirty Years War begins two years after Shakespeare’s death, the English Civil War starts in 1642 and the early modern philosophical era starts around this time. I wonder if Shakespeare’s The Tempest foreshadows a period of terrible disillusionment (especially among philosophers), Leibniz being a possible exception. We get figures like Grotius and Hobbes trying to develop a natural law that in principle could be detached from religion, Hobbes arguing that religious diversity and freedom of expression are neither desirable for civil peace nor necessary for personal salvation, and later Hume hinting that in the end we don’t need anything like religious belief to explain or to justify government and moral practice. (Leibniz tries maybe for the last time before the 20th century to develop a creed that he thinks all Christians can accept and that can reconcile the various Christian churches.)