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Interview: Shakespeare prize winner Emma Whipday

Written by Arts

Emma Whipday, Newcastle’s very own Renaissance lecturer has managed to stun the world of literature with her new book Shakespeare’s Domestic Tragedies: Violence in the Early Modern Home. 

As many of us are aware, the garden of Shakespearean literature has very few stones unturned. However, Emma has managed to find a niche: exploring the theme of domestic violence within the dynamic of his plays. Not only a modern approach, but also an engaging subject matter to have picked up.  

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Emma some questions about her book, and also some more general questions about her time during lockdown, how to gain inspiration and what keeps her going when things might get tough. 

Shakespearean literature is such a well-researched area of literature, how did you go about finding a niche which had not yet been explored? What particular play of Shakespeare’s introduced you into an interest in researching the playwright?

In a way, finding my ‘niche’ was accidental – I was really interested in domestic tragedy when I was introduced to it as an undergraduate, and then when I studied for an MA in Shakespeare in History at UCL, I had to find a dissertation topic that involved Shakespeare. I wondered if any of Shakespeare’s plays could be defined as domestic tragedies and noticed that Othello had been defined in this way, but there was relatively little work on it in relation to the genre. I started investigating this further and became interested in whether more of Shakespeare’s plays could be thought of in this way – and so I found my niche!

I think the first play of Shakespeare’s where I really developed my interest in researching the playwright was Measure for Measure, which I studied at A Level – it’s a really fascinating exploration of corrupt government, sexual shaming, and the difficulties women face in having their voices heard and their stories believed – a #MeToo play before #MeToo! So I think it was this play that really sparked my interest.

Do you believe the home – as defined today- still holds the same connotations with safety, or has the recent rise in crime changed the definition of the home and how safe one feels? 

That’s a really interesting question – I think that today, as in early modern England, the home is often associated with safety – people still use the popular 1590s proverb ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, meaning that, like a castle, it’s a place of protection (and it’s interesting that this has become particularly relevant in lockdown).

However, it’s telling that the proverb states an Englishman’s home is his castle: then as now, the home is a place where women, in particular, can be vulnerable to male authority, particularly in cases of domestic violence.

You mention the element of pop culture within the book’s introduction and I was wondering if you could expand a little bit more about pop culture in Shakespeare’s time, as we are all aware the definition of ‘pop culture’ would not yet have been invented.

Absolutely – the popular culture I’m thinking of is the culture of ‘cheap print’ – easily affordable printed texts that were available to people from all levels of society. This included news pamphlets – which were like newspapers with only one story – which could be bought for a few pennies, and ballads – popular songs – which were sung in the streets and available even to the illiterate. Plays can be thought of as popular culture, too, as they were watched by audiences that ranged from the ‘groundlings’ who could afford the one penny entrance fee to stand and watch, to Queen Elizabeth, who would watch private performances at court. In this way, the plays and cheap print were popular culture because they reached huge numbers of people, and, unlike most literature at the period, were available to the non-elite and the illiterate.

Have you noticed any correlation between the domestic violence you discuss in the books, and some of the cases of domestic violence we see in the world currently?

Absolutely – I think the way we think about domestic violence today has its roots in early modern England – particularly in the extent to which we still think of the home as private, and hesitate to intervene in what goes on in our neighbours’ houses. The idea that what goes on inside the home is somehow sacrosanct, and that only danger to the inhabitants justifies interference (which doesn’t always happen in time), is something that I see in the plays I discuss in the book – you can see this in Othello, where Othello is publicly violent to Desdemona, and although people criticise him for it, no one actually intervenes, even though it eventually leads to her death.

Many creatives and intellectuals have found the last few months of lockdown particularly repressive for their creative brain, how have you found your creativity over the past months?

This is a great question! My answer is a bit of a cliché, as I’ve been working on a lockdown novel – not being able to do much in the evenings and weekends other than work meant that I had to find my own form of entertainment – and I found it really useful to have another world to escape to when this world got a bit much. It’s a historical novel that’s closely related to my research area, so it allowed me to think about questions I was already working on from new perspectives, as I was finding it really difficult to concentrate on my usual work. Otherwise, I’ve been watching lots of online plays, and also taking part in Zoom play readings, which has been a great way to feel a sense of creative community.

Shakespeare and Renaissance literature are clearly a passion for you, what advice would you give up and coming literature students about finding a niche you really enjoy and an area you think you can write a dissertation on?

My advice would be to follow your interests – and be willing to follow them to places you wouldn’t expect. For example, you might be interested (like me) in feminism and gender, and you might assume that means you should write your dissertation on a contemporary feminist novel – and of course you could do this, but you could also look at text before feminism existed and use the feminist lens to think about how the author represents gender and female agency and oppression, and how it participates in discourses about femininity and masculinity in its own time. One of the best dissertations I ever read applied queer theory to eighteenth-century poetry, which hasn’t had much attention through a queer lens – the student was interested in contemporary queer theory and used this interest to explore something entirely new. Or at the other end of the spectrum, I’ve read some fantastic dissertations about texts that came out just last year – the students couldn’t draw on secondary reading on those novels, because it didn’t exist yet, so they applied recent theoretical approaches to the texts, following their interest in contemporary fiction to create brand new research in their dissertation. 

As a writer, how do you deal with moments of writer’s block/ times when concentration and research seem impossible? How do you focus your brain onto one task and stop the train of procrastination?

One bit at a time. I think setting really small tasks can be so helpful with this – I might not feel able to research everything about a topic, but I can probably read one article, or one play. I might not be able to imagine writing a chapter, but I can write a paragraph. And then sometimes it feels possible, after on paragraph, to write one more. I think I procrastinate most when the tasks seem overwhelming, so breaking things down makes them so much more doable.

What three pieces of advice would you give your younger self? 

I’d give these three pieces of advice to my younger self:

1) Trust your interests – don’t feel there are things you ‘should’ be interested in, follow the things you’re actually interested in.

2) Don’t be intimidated by other people’s expertise – pursue your interests regardless, it’s not a competition (and even when it is an actual competition, all you can do is follow your own interests and ideas, which won’t be like anyone else’s!).

3) Leave room for creativity and playfulness, even when they don’t seem to be productive – these are the things that will help you when you get stuck.

Which writers are your role models/ who have you read or what have you read that has given you the most inspiration? 

I love Tiffany Stern’s scholarship – she looks at things in a completely different way to many other scholars, and because she asks questions that other people don’t ask, she’s discovered all sorts of new, and ground breaking, things about how people rehearsed in early modern England, how actors learned their lines, and how plays began and ended.

I also love Lena Cowen Orlin’s work – she moves across disciplines (particularly English and History) to recreate how people thought about things like privacy and space in early modern England.

I’m also inspired by Diane Purkiss’s work on witchcraft – she’s so insightful about why women might have claimed to have experiences of witchcraft in early modern England, even when these claims killed them.

And the work of scholars at Shakespeare’s Globe (Farah Karim-Cooper and Will Tosh) has been transformative for me in terms of thinking about how scholarship can inform, and be informed by, theatre-making – these scholars are definitely my role models.

We would like to thank Emma for taking the time to interview with us. Emma’s book is now available on Amazon or online via the Newcastle University Library.

Featured image: Tristan Surtel via Wikimedia Commons

Last modified: 9th September 2020

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