Shakespeare & the Play of Story

McGill Shakespeare and Performance Research Team

The “Shakespeare and the Play of Story” research program will develop a new account of the artistic, social, intellectual, and historical dimensions of Shakespearean narrative. The program takes its lead from figures such as philosopher Hannah Arendt, historiographer Hayden White, legal scholar Paul Gewirtz, and Shakespeare himself, thinkers who tell us that the human lifeworld is fundamentally narrative in character. We remember that Hamlet’s dying wish is that Horatio will, in this harsh world, draw his breath in pain to tell Hamlet’s story. The Prince understands that a well-recounted story of his life will have the best chance of capturing the essential meaning and worth of his personhood.

In light of the narrativity of the human life-world, the “Play of Story” research program asks, to what degree is Shakespeare’s historical durability and cultural mobility an effect of his genius as a creator of memorable stories? To consider Shakespearean narrativity in terms developed by theorists of law, history, and subjectivity is to begin to understand more specifically how his plays mobilize stories in socially, historically, and psychologically formative ways. Important also is that Shakespeare is not only a creator of stories, but also someone who understands how stories are often used in order to naturalize social power and inequality. His ability to stage the narrative character of social domination makes him a force for political advancement as well as one of the most enduring of story-tellers. His plays are also powerfully critical of the drive toward narrativity itself; after all, for all his emphasis on his life as a story, Hamlet’s words and action do not resolve easily at all into a coherent narrative. In as much as Shakespeare is a Thinker about the social force of stories, a critic of narrativity, and an artist of dramatic narrative, he can become both the object of study for, and a key conversation partner with, modern researchers. What, it must therefore also be asked, can Shakespeare tell researchers in a range of disciplines about the life-shaping and world-making power of stories?

These questions call for answers founded in interdisciplinary collaboration between a group of Shakespeareans (both literary-historical scholars and theatre practitioners) and a number of experts who are concerned about how stories work in the fields of law, history, and the philosophy of the subject. Previous FQRSC funding has enabled the development of team's practice of bringing literary scholars, theatre historians, and theatre practitioners into critical dialogue with each other, an innovation that remains unique in Shakespeare studies, where these modes of approach most often work in isolation from each other. The new, proposed research program builds on this foundation and significantly expands the interdisciplinary character of the team’s scholarship. Important is the cultivation of a working environment where the questions and insights on one side influence and are influenced by the questions and insights on the other.

In order to ensure that this interdisciplinary program of exchange is as effective and productive as possible, it will be organized around a number of interrelated research axes, each one featuring a particular line of approach to the broader questions of Shakespeare and narrative, and it will unfold as a sequence of interrelated projects that issue from a common ground of ideas, a sharing of methodologies, and a multidisciplinary body of primary and secondary sources.

Principal Investigator:
Dr. Paul Yachnin, English (McGill).