A bit of Rome and some Afternoon Tea

One of the great things about touring on this trip has been the shear amount of variety in activities one can experience in any given visit. A great example of this was our trip to Bath, a bustling city with a very long history. Over the course of the day, we were able to visit sites spanning from roman times to the Georgian era, and still had time to get afternoon tea. The first of these were the roman baths, for which the city is named. It was amazing to walk through the complex both learn about roman culture and admire the long-lasting monument. On the same square, and visible in the background from the main bath, stands Bath Abbey. The current church was the last great church built in medieval England, and stands on a site where churches have stood from Anglo-Saxon times. We admired the vaulted ceilings and the blend of medieval and more modern, 19th century refurbishments that create the inside of the church. After visiting the abbey, we strolled around modern Bath, enjoying the atmosphere and outdoor art installations, before ultimately deciding to take afternoon tea at the Pump House – a Georgian hall built over the roman baths. So, by the time we got back on the bus that evening, I had walked through a bathhouse from about 200 AD, explored an abbey from the late 1400’s, and peeked into a tea room from the 1700’s. Talk about a day trip!

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Books on Books on Books

Yesterday I took a break from the furious paper writing and the hours of reading I still have left to do before packing up and went to the British Library in London. Walking into the library I was immediately struck by the four story high tower of antique books that are enclosed in glass. However, that glass case is just the first thing you see; the library actually contains over 14 million books, along with 170 million artifacts from all over the world and from all different time periods.

The most prized out of the collection are kept in the exhibition “Treasures of the British Library” (which you can visit for free). In this exhibition I saw the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, the first edition of Jane Eyre and Thomas More’s Utopia and a letter written by Elizabeth I, among many other impressive books and artifacts. The amount of history in that room was astounding.

After looking at as much history as possible, we went and saw even more. We took the Underground to St. Paul’s Cathedral, walked to the Tower of London and even walked across the Thames via Tower Bridge. No matter where you turn in England you will find something historical, whether it be in London, Oxford or anywhere else you choose to go.

Bath: A Roman Vacation

On Satu20160611_140454rday, June 11th, we took a field trip to Bath. Our field trip included a tour of the Roman baths. Originally called Aquae Sulis, the town was built around the natural spring that provide the baths with an endless supply of hot water.

When you enter the historic site, it feels a bit disorienting. The second floor of the Roman complex was our ground floor; the city of Bath was built on top of the baths. Later in the tour, we would see that the bath complex extends far beyond what is excavated, and spreads out underneath the streets of Bath. Much of the tour was underground, so it was difficult to imagine what the baths looked like when they were above ground. However, along the tour there were digital recreations, so you could see what it looked like at the peak of its use.

The Sacred Spring is the center of the complex, on top of the natural hot spring. In Roman times, no one was allowed to swim in this bath. This spring was dedicated to Minerva, the Roman goddess of knowledge. The water from the spring then flowed throughout the baths, bringing the waters of Minerva all over the complex. The Romans believed that the water had healing powers, and many sick people came to be healed. After our tour, we had the opportunity to drink some of the water. I don’t think it healed me, but it certainly left a taste in my mouth.

 

Death meant so much more

When I visited Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, I had a very interesting conversation with a man working there. He gave me some insight into the mind of Shakespeare and how obsession with death was a theme in both Shakespeare’s plays and life.

When looking at Shakespeare’s grave, you might notice that it faces the opposite direction of the others near it. This is so that when the dead rise and face the east, Shakespeare’s body will be facing the correct direction.

Blog Post 2 Picture 1On Shakespeare’s grave is a curse to scare the potential invader so no one destroys his body, which would keep his soul from rest. As a very wealthy member of the church, he was able to get his grave at the front of the church in an area that will not likely be destroyed. Lead-lined windows and a solid wooden door, that is supposed to be nearly impossible to break through when properly locked, make sure no one breaks into the church and destroys his grave.

Over 100,000 people have been buried in the church’s graveyard, which is not too big a space. Therefore, graves were dug up after a certain number of years had passed and were then re-used for other people (This practice is no longer done in England). The bones that remained from the previous owners were burned in a bone fire – which is where we get the term “bon fire.” In the play Hamlet, we see there are characters digging up graves for this very purpose.

Shakespeare’s location within the church would have kept him safe from this practice and ensured that his body would not be disturbed. If the curse was not enough to keep people from disturbing his grave, Shakespeare made sure there were plenty of other obstacles. I was told that Shakespeare was not necessarily afraid of death itself but of what happens to the body once it dies. In a time when the church wielded great power and switched between two ideologies multiple times — with destruction of both spiritual and physical heritage along the way, it is not too difficult to understand why Shakespeare would have feared for his safety after death. His fascination with death in his plays was based on an uneasiness rendered in reality, and we wonder at how he took death to extremes not only with characters in his plays but also with his own grave.

Uneasy times called for unsettling ideas in Shakespeare’s life

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    This week, I went to see an exhibit at the Weston Library entitled Shakespeare’s Dead. Though we are celebrating the 400th-year anniversary of his death, the exhibit is not about the death of Shakespeare himself, but the characters in his works who, in various ways, experience death.

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Among the morbid quotes from plays, various illustrations of death were displayed. Old texts showed what life after death was to be like, and how some were given paradise while others ended up in flames. On the other hand, there was still the idea of a possible purgatory, but this idea and others would have had an unstable reputation due to the replacement of the Catholic church at this time and the religious and political unrest that overtook England.

Other works showed the fascination with corpses in medical education and how knowledge of human anatomy was increasing in Shakespeare’s time. Even without the medical aspect, skulls and skeletons were common images. There was often a scene showing the Dance of Death where jovial skeletons danced and escorted the living to their final home.

Shakespeare’s Dead gives the curious student of Shakespeare a good illustration of the ideas and fears associated with death at the time Shakespeare wrote his plays. This topic reminds me of another place where I learned about Shakespeare’s true fears, or rather his paranoia, regarding death, but more on that in another post…

 

 

Terrific Tutorials

I’m going to be completely honest in saying that the thought of attending a tutorial terrified me. The idea of sitting one-on-one across from a professor and discussing a topic I’d spent only a week studying sounded like one of Dante’s inner circles of hell. After calming myself down from the first tutorial, I am EXCITED about getting to meet with my tutor. Sure, the stress of writing a 2,000 word paper isn’t lovely, but I truly enjoy having the ability to study what I care about and selected myself. I look forward to learning about and discussing something I have a genuine interest in.

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It’s been rather swell getting a beautiful view from my tutorial room. 

In tutorials, honesty is the best policy. I was honest on my first day by expressing to my tutor, Anna, that I struggle with forming my own opinions and thinking independently. Telling Anna that this was what I expected to improve through my tutorial was the best decision I could have made because she has incorporated it into our discussions in an unintimidating way. Anna has made me comfortable in saying “I don’t know” and finding the answer on my own. She has challenged my thoughts and built up my confidence in discussing my opinions. For this, I am forever grateful.

words, words, words

Stratford-upon-Avon is a humble little town, made eccentric by its significance as the birthplace of William Shakespeare. On the sunlit banks of the River Avon sits the Royal Shakespeare Company, where we came to see one of Shakespeare’s darkest and most psychologically thrilling plays – Hamlet.

While perched on the balcony seats of the RSC, we were treated to the vibrant, suspenseful production by director Simon Godwin. With a largely black cast, the context of the play was re-imagined with the colorful mise-en-scène of a modern African monarchy. While it might seem to be a liberal reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s work, in actuality there was little changed in either plot or dialogue to Shakespeare’s original text. The change in scene only emphasized the continuity of the human condition between people of different backgrounds.

The excitement of the production was supported by dramatic effects like gunshots, helicopter landings, and bone-resonating African drums. One of my favorite additions was the use of spray paint and artistic props wielded by the would-be delinquent Hamlet. But the real exhilaration of the performance came from the superb talent of the actors. I was especially impressed by the exuberance and passion of the younger cast members, none more so than the lead actor Paapa Essiedu, playing Hamlet. While there were lines cut here and there to conserve time, Hamlet’s various and lengthy soliloquys remained largely intact. It took quite a bit of physical exertion and oratory talent on Essiedu’s part to keep up with the violent momentum of the play – using his reflections to build tension instead of bogging down the production.

The innovative handling, quality of acting, and vivid expression of this production made the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet come alive, making it my favorite performance of the trip.

Cue: Tiffany Stern

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Gorgeous macro moss on a railing in Bath.

When reading a play (those written by Shakespeare, in our case), it’s easy to forget that these enchanting stories were meant to be acted out on a stage by real, breathing humans. Although we catch glimpses of this “real life” element in certain actions or stage directions, there are not many historians who have made efforts in understanding the manner in which these comedies and dramas would have been first performed. Enter Tiffany Stern – one of the most wholeheartedly passionate women I have ever had the privilege to meet. Trying to list her books, articles, research, and contributions to the field of 16th to 18th century theatre would put me well over my word limit, so I will leave you the pleasure of researching her yourself. Needless to say, our class was incredibly honored to listen to her examine some old theatre documents and their significance to the practice as a whole. What we learned may surprise you – just as it surprised us!

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Hamlet cats?

Did you that, in Shakespeare’s time, different plays were put on every day of the week? Although some would be repeated throughout the course of a month, entirely new plays would be put on every two weeks. As you can imagine, for the actors involved is these productions, rehearsals were practically non-existent.

Full versions of the selected play were not given to the actors to learn their parts; instead, individual hand-written paper rolls (hence the modern “role” in a play) were distributed that only contained the specific actor’s lines and short cue’s from other actor’s dialogues. Quite often, accidental or intentional confusion arose from this system of line-learning. What emotions should the actor have when speaking? What kind of situation are they reacting to? What if an actor forgets their cue? With the incredible variety of plays performed within a given month, actors had to rely on their great skill to deliver a powerful, compelling, cohesive performance without organizing even a single rehearsal.

Three Weeks In with the Wonder Women

Quick dispatch from the professor:  This is an amazing group of women. They are smart, kind, savvy, responsible, easy going (an important trait for international travel), and a lot of fun. Not one is an English major, but they read and analyze Shakespeare like pros. It has been my privilege to get to teach them and drag them all over southern England to see Shakespeare plays.

We have seen two plays at the Globe in London, Hamlet By Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and Measure for Measure by students from the Oxford School of Drama. They have heard lectures from Oxford Professors Laurie Maguire, Tiffany Stern, and Simon Palfrey. We’ve spent hours during regular class time.  Next week: a field trip to the Ashmolean Museum and the “Shakespeare is Dead” exhibit at the Bodleian Library and our final class in which the students will present their ideas for their final papers. Oh, and they will also keep up with reading and writing for their tutorials. See? Wonder women.

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Atop the tower at St. Mary’s University Church, after class in the Old Library

 

Seeing the life that you want

In my early years of education, I doubted if I ever wanted to go to college. The American system of learning, being gauged by a test and score, was never very appealing to me. I felt that it never reflected my knowledge or it encouraged a system of memorization not learning. We met for my first tutorial in a beautiful office in a timeless church. This was my first experience truly meeting someone that had and was living the life that I wanted.

unnamedHe told me about his experience with the Masters program here at Oxford, studying disease control in the prison system, and now the work he was doing with typhoid. It is a remarkable feeling to talk to someone and be inspired and aware that the life you want is out there. The biggest word I would use to describe my tutorial experience so far is motivation. The tutorials are set up where you can get as little or much out of them as you wish. That is very clear. When you are able to understand the real life applications of what you’re learning, the motivation to learn is immense. You understand how putting the time and effort in will get you to where you want to be, as well as the simple fact that you are truly interested in the subject matter.