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From 'Macbeth, Macbeth' by Simon Palfrey and Ewan Fernie (illustrations by Tom de Freston)

Shakespeare’s dead

Professor Simon Palfrey from the University of Oxford talks to Sam Bennett about the deaths of Shakespeare’s men and women
From 'Macbeth, Macbeth' by Simon Palfrey and Ewan Fernie (illustrations by Tom de Freston)

"The men’s lives are finished, done, over; the women’s aren’t so evoke this kind of forward memory, this sense of possibility."

Running until 18th September at the Bodleian’s Weston Library is a major exhibition entitled ‘Shakespeare’s Dead’. It is curated by Dr Emma Smith and Professor Simon Palfrey of University of Oxford’s English faculty. Here Simon speaks to Sam Bennett about the two talks he is due to give linked to the exhibition: one on the deaths of Shakespeare’s heroines and another on that of his heroes.

 

I’ve covered a lot of Shakespeare happenings this year, but until my discussion with Simon Palfrey I was yet to ask the question: Why dedicate a whole year’s worth of events to someone who died 400 years ago? “Shakespeare’s work is still the most performed, studied, read and adapted of all writers in probably any language,” Simon says. “You could argue that he is the most important contemporary playwright as well as the most important renaissance one. It’s not simply recovering a classic writer who is acknowledged to be great; people are always searching for new reasons to latch onto and celebrate him.”

From 'Macbeth, Macbeth' by Simon Palfrey and Ewan Fernie (illustrations by Tom de Freston)

 

So Simon joins Emma Smith in curating ‘Shakespeare’s Dead’ at the Bodleian, and throws in two talks to accompany it for good measure. “The reason we chose death is partly a joke because it is an anniversary of Shakespeare’s death,” he says. “ ‘Shakespeare’s Dead’ is a way of announcing that.”

But it’s more than just a joke. Drawing attention to the death in the Bard’s work is a means to highlighting the life in it. “What we’ve decided to do as a way of exploring, discovering and communicating the life in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, is focus on the way in which death, dying and the dead are capitalised,” the professor claims. “It allows us to hone in on specific characters and particular moments, and to recover something of Shakespeare’s techniques. But also it’s a theme that is very intimate to the peculiar nature of theatre and Shakespeare’s Drama, in which nothing really dies; the dead keep returning one way or another in the same way a play is written for repeat performances. Theatre’s premise upon repetition links to a metaphysical take on death.”

Presumably there must be differences between the male deaths and the female ones, so as to warrant two separate talks. “In regards to the male characters that die,” Simon tells me, “like Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear, all the tragic heroes, their deaths speak their failures. The end of the play returns you to the beginning of the play. If you want to understand what the death of Macbeth means, it’s got nothing to do with the future of Scottish politics, his death only has reference to things that he has done in his life – you go back to the life to find the meaning of the death.

“The heroines’ deaths (those of Ophelia, Desdemona, Cleopatra and Juliet) generate futures. The men’s lives are finished, done, over; the women’s aren’t so evoke this kind of forward memory, this sense of possibility. This is exemplified in Juliet and Ophelia, and the amazing posthumous lives they have as icons.”

Four centuries since Shakespeare’s death. It seems fitting to cover here four Palfrey Shakespearean endeavours; the exhibition, the two talks and also the novel he has written with friend Ewan Fernie, 'Macbeth, Macbeth'. Simon describes it as “both a sequel and a repetition of Macbeth; it’s about the survivors of the play that go on to repeat the play. The Porter has three sons that in different ways go on to repeat the experience of Macbeth.” The book is available now from bloomsbury.

 

- Sam Bennett

Shakespeare’s Dead

Until 18th September

The Weston Library

Free

Shakespeare’s dead: women

8th June, 1pm

Lecture Theatre, The Weston Library

Free but book to avoid disappointment

Shakespeare’s dead: men

15th June, 1pm

Lecture Theatre, The Weston Library

Free but book to avoid disappointment

 

Images - From 'Macbeth, Macbeth' by Simon Palfrey and Ewan Fernie (illustrations by Tom de Freston)

 

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