During an intensive interdisciplinary five-week course this summer, undergraduate students from the University of Pennsylvania traveled to the heart of Elizabethan theater to gain an in-depth appreciation for the works of William Shakespeare where it all began.
Based in the English Department of the School of Arts and Sciences, “Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Times: Penn in London” took students to the restored Globe Theater to view “As You Like It” and “Hamlet” staged under contemporary conditions.
“London was an intensely performative culture,” says James Schlatter, a senior lecturer in theatre arts, who guided students through the conflicting social, political, religious, and cultural conditions that influenced Elizabethan London.
One of the required readings for the course, he says, was taken from Peter Hall’s book “Cities in Civilization,” titled, “The World as Stage: London, 1570-1620.” It was a stage for the contending factions of the monarchy, the church, and civic life during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Schlatter says.
“Elizabethan London was a moment of extraordinary extremes with great conflict. It was a very volatile period,” Schlatter explains. “Alongside singular accomplishments in philosophy, science, and poetry, citizens faced the constant threat of the plague. Death was always close. The work of Shakespeare presents a paradigm of those extremes.”
In order to view Shakespeare as a great theater-maker, it’s essential to look at perspectives of each character, their relationships, and their destinies, Schlatter says.
“With ‘Hamlet,’ we’re anticipating a modern world where everything is being questioned.
In depth and breadth, Shakespeare is managing to tell us about his moment,” says Schlatter, adding that the practices of yesteryear once involved all-male casts with original staging and costuming, but not anymore. This summer at the Globe, Hamlet was played by a female.
“‘As You Like It’ is about love, friendship, family, and power dynamics,” says Schlatter, who has taught at Penn since 1989. “That language is alive, visceral, and emotionally very powerful. It’s valuable to have that perspective.”
“What better time is there to study Shakespeare than when in London, where the magic of his productions were and still are so integral to the theater scene?” asks Bartley. “At the Globe, I was fully immersed in a similar theater experience that audiences had during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.”
Bartley says she was thrilled to share the experience of discovering London with her brother Alec, a sophomore majoring in computer science at Purdue University.
“One of my favorite memories is when Alec and I spent time in our apartment acting out our characters’ lines from ‘As You Like It,’” says Bartley.
Juliette Palermo, a junior from Philadelphia, changed her perspectives as a result of the course. It was the first time she traveled overseas.
“I was apathetic about theater and I wanted to change that because so many of my friends are involved in theater groups at Penn. London was the best place to learn more about theater,” explains Palermo, an English major who struggles with how much the plays should change to please today’s audiences. “Constantly adapting the work ensures that it is never forgotten and more accessible, but it may threaten the original integrity of the work.”
Schlatter says the course illustrates how Shakespeare’s plays are as much for today’s audiences as they were for audiences in London 400 years ago.
“To quote Mark Rylance, the great Shakespearean actor and first artistic director of the Globe Theater, ‘We are all modern Elizabethans,’” Schlatter says. “We are always in the process of rediscovering who Shakespeare is with every performance we attend.”
It is the fifth time since 1999 that Schlatter has taught the travel study course, which culminates with a 20-page research paper that’s due in the beginning of the fall semester.
For her paper, Bartley chose to outline the history of the Blackfriars theater, its origins in Catholicism, and how it was used during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Meanwhile, Palermo, who enjoys pairing neuroscience with English and finds Shakespeare’s portrayals of women fascinating, examined the differences between male and female characters expressing madness and melancholia in “Hamlet.”
“The thing I love about Shakespeare was how much range he had,” Schlatter says. “Calling his verse ‘poetry’ is limiting. Shakespeare can be screamed, shouted, and whispered—as long as the meaning of the line was conveyed. The language was intellectually challenging, emotionally rich, and profound. All’s well that ends well.”
Photos by Allison Bartley and Juliette Palermo.