Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and the Failure of Adaptation in Performance
Below is the first article in a series to be published in LFQ over this and forthcoming issues. The theme of this series is ‘Professing Parenthood,’ thematically designed to create space for rigorous discussions about how we adapt to changing conditions of parenthood in our scholarly endeavours. Despite an increase in attention to the ways in which we balance motherhood and professional life (cf. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can't Have it All”), the rich intersections of motherhood and professional identity in the academy have not yet been fully explored. While there have been a series of scholarly books on academia and motherhood from a professional perspective (cf. Ghodsee & Connelly, 2014; Evans & Grant, 2013; Castaneda & Isgro, 2013; Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2012) there still a critical gap in how we interrogate the mutual modifications, adaptions and transformations we experience between and among identities as parent and scholars engaged in literary, filmic, and textual analysis.
Professing Parenthood seeks to ask the following questions: what happens when ontological transformations (from not-parent to parenthood – in its many forms) are treated by male and female colleagues alike as synonymous with dilution or diminution? Is there room for choosing a different pathway? Is it possible to argue, instead, that parenthood opens us up to different (perhaps even enhanced) capacities? Can we deploy our disciplinary lenses to read our maternal-paternal bodies/identities to enrich our discipline, our research, our teaching, and more generally our understanding of who we are and what we do in the academy? How do we adapt or fail to adapt to the shifting conditions of parenthood in the classrooms and boardrooms, in our research and other forms of scholarly inquiry?
By way of an introduction to the series, and to provide some insights into the genesis of this project, I would like to share my own journey of failure and adaptation as a parent in the professoriate.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I experienced the usual mix of delight and trepidation that comes with impending parenthood. In true academic fashion, I bought every book I could find on pregnancy and infancy, with a particular penchant for scholarly-sounding books like the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy: From Doctors Who Are Parents, Too! (2011), or books written by cognitive psychologists like Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid (Gallagher, 2013) and What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life (Eliot, 2000).
My domestic world was animated by healthy emotional responses such as hope and curiosity and amazement. However, I was so concerned with how my pregnancy might threaten to disrupt the professional identity I had so assiduously constructed that my response in my professional sphere was to disavow anything related to pregnancy or impending parenthood. I did not acknowledge my pregnancy in the classroom, during office hours, or at departmental meetings. My quickly swelling body became the elephant in the room (elephantine references are not entirely hyperbolic: my entire body was obviously and undeniably pregnant by the middle of my second trimester).
Shakespeare – more specifically, The Winter’s Tale – taught me about the dangers of failing to adapt to changing conditions when professional and personal spheres become inextricably entwined. In the winter term, as I was entering my third trimester, I was scheduled to teach an undergraduate course on Jacobean Shakespeare. I had chosen the plays well before I knew I was pregnant, so you can imagine my horror when I realized that three of the six plays had explicit references to pregnant and lactating bodies – and two of those plays prominently featured pregnant women onstage.
At the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, Hermione, Queen of Sicily and wife to King Leontes, is heavily pregnant. In 1.2 Leontes asks Hermione with help convincing his best friend to extend his stay in Sicily, which Hermione does with eloquence and grace befitting a queen. As she beseeches Polixenes on Leontes’s behalf, her husband becomes increasingly jealous and imagines that his friend has “fished” his pond and “entered” his (wife’s) gates (1.2 195; 197). In his jealous rage, his concept of the body politic and the body corporeal comingle and his dynastic and personal identity collapses under this pressure. Hermione’s body becomes (to borrow Othello’s phrase) the “ocular proof” of his cuckoldry and Leontes puts her on trial for her supposed crimes (she is found innocent and beyond reproach at the end of the play, but not before her toddler dies and her prematurely delivered baby is raised by shepherds) (Othello, 3.3 360). As we explored these scenes in the classroom – and analyzed the signification of the pregnant body in a three-dimensional performance space – my body was mapped onto this play in ways that made it nearly impossible (and, indeed, bordering on farcical) to maintain the stance of disavowal I had so carefully stage-managed to date.
Pregnancy opened up my body to a totally new kind of scrutiny and gaze within the classroom. The gaze of my students became – for me – penetrating, even intimate with their curiosity at my corporal transformations despite my insistence that focus on a purely epistemological engagement with the play-text. As I write this preface with equal parts amusement and disdain for my past self, I still remember the panic as I realized my body was a site of signification that I could not control or contain. I was terrified that the scholarly authority I had so carefully built was crumbling: and yet Shakespeare helped me labor through the throes of a new identity as a scholar, a teacher, a learner, and as a parent. The disciplinary and pedagogical lenses I had used to encounter The Winter’s Tale were irrevocably transformed via this experience, and I currently have an essay under development that explores these issues in more depth.
My failure to adapt in the classroom, and in the professional sphere more generally, was in part a product of the systemic pressures and tensions one might experience navigating the professoriate as a young, tenure-stream, female academic. Something is certainly rotten in the state of the academy. However, I also failed to modify the space I occupied within the professoriate – and initially did not demand that the academy and my discipline (early modern performance) adapt in kind to my shifting ontological and physiological state.
Some questions we would like to address with upcoming essays in this series:
How do we view parenthood via our disciplinary lenses?
· Do our disciplinary lenses adapt and make space for transformation and adaptation?
· How is the pregnant body performed and denied within professional spaces (e.g. in the classroom?) and how do we use our scholarly training to make new spaces?
· How are ontological transformations mapped onto physical spaces and how do we disrupt, modify or maintain sites of performance?
· How do academics view their own transformations as they become parents via lenses that include theoretical approaches such as queer theory, historiography, post-colonialism, or performance theory?
How do we demand institutions and the professoriate more generally adapt to parenthood?
· How is pregnancy treated and disciplined and regulated within the institutional culture of a university?
· How are forms of new parenthood regulated, reified, constructed? How are these relatively new identity categories and what are the forms of institutional memory about maternity leave (or lack therefore) 30 years ago?
· Can research and other scholarly activities benefit from a more visible and intentional adaptation of practices and professional spaces through the lens of parenthood?
Castaneda, Mari and Kirsten Isgro, eds. Mothers in Academia. Columbia University Press: New York, 2013.
Eliot, Lise. What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. Bantam: New York, 2000.
Evans, Elrena and Caroline Grant, eds. Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. 2008.
Gallagher, Shaun. Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid. Tarcher Perigee: New York, 2013.
Ghodsee, Kristen and Rachel Connelly. Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia. Roman & Littlefield, 2014.
Harms, Richard. Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy: From Doctors Who Are Parents, Too! Good Books: Intercourse, PA. 2011
Kern Paster, Gail. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England. 1993.
Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Random House: New York, 2013
Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. Ed. Roma Gill. Oxford School Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
--- Othello. Ed. Roma Gill. Oxford School Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can't Have it All.” July/August 2012 The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/
Ward, Kelly and Lisa Wolf-Wendel. Academic Motherhood: How Faculty Manage Work and Family. Rutgers 2012