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INTERVIEW: Linda Shenk on Shakespeare, Religion, and Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers returns to the Twin Cities in dramatic fashion next week with Minnesota Opera’s staging of the classic Gounod opera Roméo et Juliette. Shakespeare scholars have primarily attributed the sources for the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon’s work to two poems: Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet (1562) and William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure (written sometime before 1580). Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is far more than a straight adaptation, however. On Friday, Sept. 23, Dr. Linda Shenk of Iowa State University will speak at the University of Minnesota on the background events feeding into and imagery depicting the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets.

We caught up with Dr. Shenk via email to discuss her upcoming lecture.

You previously authored a book on Queen Elizabeth I, poetry, and politics, and were one of the editors of Elizabeth I and the “Sovereign Arts”. How does the research that you present in this talk relate to those projects – is it a departure, a complementary step, an entirely new set of research, etc?

My current work extends out of some of the research I conducted, in particular, for Learned Queen. Elizabeth I‘s persona as a learned queen was actually her most internationally powerful royal image – one so powerful that both Elizabeth and others used it to showcase her fitness to lead the pan-European Protestant Church as, essentially, a new [King] Solomon. In working on this book, I had to become intimately familiar with international relations and religious politics.
According to the advertising copy for your talk, part of your thesis is that religious conflict in continental Europe factors into the events and imagery of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What were some of the threads that led you down this path of research and analysis?
As I worked on Elizabeth‘s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (1593), I saw how many texts in this period participated in seeking a more theologically expansive position or a philosophically calming rhetoric that could move beyond the religious polarization that had wracked Europe and was dangerously splintering England as well. What I kept finding were more texts that I expected that were designed to reach across the confessional divide in the hopes of creating civic stability.
A significant strand of this rhetoric centers on the rise of Neostoicism as a language of calm, constancy, and stability that offered Europe both promise … and significant worry in stemming the violence. Part of my talk will examine how Shakespeare explores in Romeo and Juliet both the promise and worry that Neostoicism offered as a path to move beyond polarization.
Neostoicism offered a language of calm; its focus on submitting to larger forces also became a crucial language to support absolutism. Neostoicism could offer peace, but would it be a just peace?
The aforementioned blurb states “Examining Romeo and Juliet through the lens of international politics reveals not only deeper anxieties about the violence but also concerns about the rhetoric used to obtain peace.” Can you share an example of these concerns?
I will focus on Friar Laurence and Prince Escalus in ways that not only place them within the context of late Elizabethan texts but also with some light nods that always keep performance in mind. (I have a undergraduate degree in theater, and I still occasionally get to work with local productions of Shakespeare in Ames [Iowa]. I just finished working with a production of As You Like It a few weeks ago – and, now that I think of it, I was the Shakespeare teacher for the very first BFA class of actors that launched the University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theater partnership.)  In fact, I never thought I would work on Romeo and Juliet, but that all changed when I attended a performance of the play.
What sorts of sources do you draw on for this work? 
I work with a lot of pamphlets relating news from the Continent, especially about France. These texts positively poured out of London bookstalls in the 1590s. I also examine publications about Neostoic values, Neostoic political texts, texts that express England’s own fears about rising dissension, famine, and violence.
Are there any interesting/fun archives and libraries that you visited during the process?
No fantastic stories of trips to archives for this project.
Elizabethan playwrights had some brushes with the law related to religion – in 1593, for example, Thomas Kyd was arrested for having Arian writings, which he claimed were Christopher Marlowe’s. How does Shakespeare stack up against his contemporary playwrights in this respect?
In the talk, I will also share a powerful scene from another play that Shakespeare is thought to have written. Don’t ask me which one, though–it’s a surprise.
Dr. Shenk’s (free) lecture is sponsored by the Department of English at the University of Minnesota. 
Twin Cities Arts Reader