Rarely have I been in a room with so many titans of Shakespeare studies gathered together in one place. And the raison d’être was to celebrate the career of Professor Ann Thompson, a general editor of the Arden Shakespeare series, Director of the London Shakespeare Centre, and who has recently retired from King’s College London, but continues to write and edit on all aspects of Shakespeare. The speakers are at the top of their respective fields, yet each took the opportunity to thank Ann for her pioneering work and tireless support over four decades, which have seen women come from the margins to the very cutting edge of Shakespeare studies.
Professor Neil Taylor, who co-edited all three texts of Hamlet with Ann, introduced the guest of honour with a witty, extended parallel between Ann and Shakespeare himself – both came from rural backgrounds but made their careers in London; both were exceptional in their own right yet keen collaborators, and both had made a living from Shakespeare’s works.
Ann then reminisced about devising a course on Women’s Studies in the University of Liverpool in the 1970s, only to be told that if she wanted to teach the course to students it would have to be taught only by her. Such anecdotes show just how far we have come, but there was also a sense that there is still work to do before we reach parity between the sexes in the profession.
Professor Suzanne Gossett (one of the general textual editors of the Norton Shakespeare) thanked Ann for cutting the ‘Gordian knot’ of editing Shakespeare – women could not edit Shakespeare, because women had not yet edited Shakespeare. Ann changed this by not only taking on comedies such as The Taming of the Shrew, but also Hamlet, the holy grail of Shakespeare editions. In becoming general editor for Arden, she paved the way for the introduction of more women into the profession of Shakespeare editor. Ann told the room with pride that Macbeth would be coming out next year with not one, but two female editors.
Experiments on the Globe stage were carried out by Professor Elizabeth Schafer, who looked at the female-dominated Tragedy of Mariam written by a woman, Elizabeth Carey. Her argument that this text worked in performance was convincing, proposing that we call it experimental theatre rather than closet drama. This was brought home when we left the lecture theatre for the Globe theatre itself, showing the importance of performance practice on textual scholarship.
What was clear from all the speakers (which also included the feminist pioneers Catherine Belsey, Kathleen McKluskie and Jean E. Howard) was that the contribution of women to Shakespeare over the centuries has been immense, but too often overlooked. I learned of Mary Cowden Clarke being the first to publish a concordance of Shakespeare’s works, and Mary Dunbar whose Shakespeare Birthday book outsold all others in the nineteenth century. Dr. John Lavagnino, one of the general editors of the Oxford Middleton, commended Bernice Kliman’s ‘enfolded’ Hamlet as being ahead of its time, while Professor Lena Orlin (executive Director of the Shakespeare Association of America) even made a case for Shakespeare’s wife Ann as an important co-partner in Shakespeare’s business affairs.
It would be impossible to do justice to the depth and variety of topics covered. But I took three lessons from the Women In Shakespeare conference:
- Women have been writing about and studying Shakespeare for centuries
- The contribution of women to the field is being recognised, but much work remains still to be done
- You do not have to be female to be a feminist
In 1996, Ann Thompson co-edited a collection called Women Reading Shakespeare, 1660-1900 with the much remembered Sasha Roberts. It is a testament to Ann’s game-changing career that the book of essays published by the Arden Shakespeare and edited by Gordon McMullan, Lena Orlin and Virginian Vaughan in her honour is called Women Making Shakespeare.
Dr. Derek Dunne