“Green Shakespeare?”

When my Rhodes College students mention to their friends and family that they are taking a seminar in this topic, they are often met with incredulity: what on earth does the Bard have to do with environmental studies? The incredulity sometimes reveals a skepticism towards any apparently trendy topic in literary studies, but more often manifests a doubt that the humanities would have much at all to say to us about current ecological concerns. As these Rhodes students have already learned, the answer is: far more than most of us would imagine.

Indeed, it seems like our unspoken presuppositions about the natural world often have troubling beginnings within Shakespeare’s period. Shakespeare seems uncannily prescient in recognizing and dramatizing such concerns. This conversation about “ecocritical” interpretation, which has until now been confined to our 18-person seminar in a campus classroom, is about to reach a much broader audience. On Friday, March 26, 2010, Rhodes College will host a group of five international scholars for Green Shakespeare: A Symposium on Ecocriticism and the Bard.

This will be a unique opportunity for audience members to converse with leading figures in this emerging field, exploring ways in which Shakespeare’s works explore the idea of “nature”; respond to contemporary ecological disasters; manifest anxieties about manipulation of genetic stock; dramatize relations between humans and animals; and expose the fantasy of a retreat from civilization to the supposed purity of the wild. What’s particularly exciting is that Memphis turns out to be an ideal place for such an event to be hosted. We’ve consulted with Project Green Fork on how best to cater the food for the reception; the keynote lecture, on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is following the recent production of that play by the Tennessee Shakespeare Company; and the event coincides with a number of emerging “green” initiatives across the city, from Sustainable Shelby to the plans for the Greenline.

Even just a few years ago, funding for such an event would have been difficult to secure. But thanks to a generous gift from the estate of prominent Memphis physician Dr. Iris Annette Pearce, Rhodes College enjoys an unusually wide range of Shakespeare-related resources. In accordance with her wishes, the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment was established to support events for the entire campus. Funds generated by Dr. Pearce’s gift aid Shakespeare studies through support for scholarly research; visiting lectures; conferences and symposia; productions of plays; periods of residence by performing artists; and other innovative programming to enhance Shakespeare at Rhodes and in the greater Memphis community.

Few colleges, indeed few universities, enjoy such crucial support for Shakespeare studies. In seeking to make these events most appealing for a broad audience, we have capitalized on local performances—for instance, in 2008 we brought a lecturer to campus to speak about As You Like It in conjunction with the Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s production of that play, as we did again in 2009 for the McCoy Theatre’s Taming of the Shrew. We also partner with academic programs at Rhodes in order to engage students from the widest possible range of disciplines. This includes not only English and Theatre, as one would expect, but also Political Science, African American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and, for Green Shakespeare, our new Environmental Studies program, which like the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment is flourishing in its second year at Rhodes.

Programming is performance-related as well: this past October, an early music instrumental ensemble, The City Musick, presented a concert called “The Topping Tooters of the Town: The Music of the City Waits 1500-1700,” with an emphasis on the music associated with the theatre in Shakespeare’s working lifetime (1585-1616). Among the instruments the performers played to a full house of 100+ audience members were sackbuts, English bagpipes, cornetts, recorders, and dulcians. Looking forward to Spring 2011, the Pearce Endowment will help sponsor a visiting director, British Shakespearean Nick Hutchison, to direct Twelfth Night as part of the McCoy Theatre’s 30th’s anniversary season. CODA: The Center for the Development of the Arts has served as a key collaborator, regularly subsidizing tickets for Rhodes students, faculty, and staff to attend Shakespearean productions in the area. In 2008, CODA funded the symposium on “Shakespeare in Color,” which brought together national scholars as well as local artists from Hattiloo Theatre and Opera Memphis to discuss their respective productions of Macbeth; lectures from the symposium (by Wallace Cheatham, Peter Erickson, Harry Lennix, Marguerite Rippy, Amy Scott-Douglass, and Ayanna Thompson) have been published in an expanded collection of essays, Weyward Macbeth.

It’s rare to see performers and students and academics and community enthusiasts discussing Shakespeare with one another—that’s the kind of intellectual cross-fertilization that we relish. We’re hoping that those interested in environmental issues will likewise find it unexpectedly rewarding to consider how extensively Shakespeare’s works seem to anticipate our own ecological concerns.