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"Shakespeare, Anecdotally" (NEH, 2013–2014)
Performance history is largely a province of fact, a positivist place of verifiable data, to which anecdotes form an embarrassing suburb. Shakespeare’s four-hundred-year performance history is, however, full of anecdotes—gossipy, trivial, and but loosely allegiant to fact. “Shakespeare, Anecdotally” argues that such anecdotes are, nevertheless, a vital index to the ways that Shakespeare’s plays generate meaning across varied times and in varied places. Furthermore, particular plays have accreted peculiar anecdotes—stories of a real skull in Hamlet, superstitions about the name “Macbeth”—and therefore express something immanent in the plays they attend. Anecdotes constitute then not just a vital component of a play’s performance history but a form of vernacular criticism by the personnel intimately involved in their production. This history and these readings are every bit as responsive to and expressive of a play’s meanings across time as the equally rich history of Shakespearean criticism. The ambition of “Shakespeare, Anecdotally” is then to develop a historiography of the anecdote, expanding on anecdotal theories developed by Jane Gallop, Joel Fineman, and others. Secondly, the project limns particularly durable anecdotes and argues for them as demotic readings of Shakespeare’s plays. The project ultimately aspires to provide, both by example and through examples, a history of post-Renaissance Shakespeare and performance, one not based entirely in fact but nonetheless full of truth.
Lesson: Shakespeare in Parts