The Winter’s Tale: an interview with Judith Dunbar

Shakespeare scholar Judith Dunbar on the Bard and tragicomedy, strong women, and stage direction.

The Winter’s Tale: an interview with Judith Dunbar
Stage magic: Photo from the SCU production of The Winter's Tale, starring Aldo Billingslea as King Leontes and directed by Frederick Tollini, S.J. Photo courtesy Aldo Billingslea.

SCM: When did you start at Santa Clara?

Dunbar: I started in the fall of 1978; before coming to Santa Clara I had been for about eight years in full-time university teaching, primarily for the University of London Institute of Education.

SCM: Why Shakespeare—and why The Winter’s Tale?

Dunbar: What draws me to Shakespeare are the crucial ethical, philosophical, spiritual, political, and gender questions that the plays put before us in ways that are dynamic and richly complex. The Winter’s Talehas an extraordinarily important tragicomic vision that moves through and beyond tragedy to renewal; the play shows that even when there are devastating losses, there is a possibility of coming to new life. That experience of moving through profound loss to renewal happens at the personal, spiritual, interpersonal, social, and political levels.

Author Judith Dunbar
Author Judith Dunbar

One of the unusual things about The Winter’s Tale is that Shakespeare doesn’t blunt the cost of loss, even with the tones of joy and new promise that are in the final scene. He breaks the mold of what was then in England a newly emerging genre of tragicomedy. The typical idea of tragicomedy held by some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries who were beginning to experiment with the genre was that in it there should be no deaths. But in The Winter’s Tale there are two irremediable and crucial deaths, and they are very significant losses. Shakespeare was daring in pushing the edges of this newly emerging form. Because the play exposes us to the depths of suffering, when it does win through to degrees of affirmation we can see the cost of that affirmation and how much it takes to get there. And we trust that mingling of sorrow and joy much more than we would a conventional happy ending.

The Winter’s Tale also has three of the strongest women’s roles in all of Shakespeare’s work, which is one of the many reasons that the play has become of renewed interest since the second half of the 20th century. There were some distinguished critical studies and productions prior to that time, but the critical esteem in which the play has since been held has been intensified particularly from the 1970s onward with the development of feminist scholarship.

SCM: How did you discover your passion for Shakespeare and performance?

Dunbar: When I was seeing excellent productions while I was living in London starting in the 1960s, I learned that the experience of great performance richly involves a wide range of interpretive possibilities. That helped me to understand the plays much more deeply and freshly than when I was reading them without also having the experience of performance. Given that, I was determined when I did graduate study at Stanford and in my postdoctoral work to bring the disciplines of theatrical production and literary studies together.

It then became clear to me that this interdisciplinary approach had implications for the way I wanted to teach Shakespeare. So in 1982 I had a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study Shakespeare in performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., which was specifically a course for university professors who wanted to learn about the implications for teaching, scholarship, and theatrical production of the complex relations between Shakespearean texts and performances. Earlier, in 1979, I had participated via the Institute for Renaissance Studies in a program on teaching Shakespeare in performance that was held in relation to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival [in Ashland].  And I’ve kept discovering ways of connecting the theatrical and the literary by attending workshops and presenting papers on Shakespeare in performance at a number of Shakespeare conferences.

SCM: What does it mean to be teaching Shakespeare at Santa Clara University, as opposed to another college?

Dunbar: When I came here in 1978, I was determined to forge strong connections between my teaching of Shakespeare as a member of the English department and my collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Such collaboration doesn’t happen in all universities and colleges; sometimes there are tensions between departments because there are stereotypes that we haven’t overcome. At Santa Clara we don’t think people in the English Department can only see from a literary perspective, and we don’t think people in the Department of Theatre and Dance can only think from the perspective of practical stagecraft. We know that we can integrate our work together, and that’s been one of our strengths. Because of these possibilities for collaboration, we’ve been able to try to do justice to the artistic medium of performance for which the plays are written. Our upper-division Shakespeare courses are cross-listed between the two departments, with a wonderful mixture in these classes of students from both departments.

Additional instances in which I have worked with colleagues in the Department of Theatre and Dance have included when I worked as a dramaturg (a consultant on the text and literary and theatrical history of a particular play) when, for example, Fred Tollini, S.J., directed The Winter’s Tale at SCU in 2000 with Aldo Billingslea in the leading role.

Moreover in a Jesuit University like Santa Clara, there is a core curriculum that supports a serious understanding of the role of the arts and of literature as profoundly important humane disciplines for exploring some of the most important questions about human existence. These disciplines help students to understand ethical issues; to develop imagination and empathy, both of which enable them to take the perspectives of others; and to hear a call to create a more humane and just world. Questions of justice are at the heart of much of Shakespeare’s work, and I make them central when I am teaching Shakespeare. Thus my Shakespeare courses are among those courses listed in the new core pathway in Justice and the Arts. I am also on the council for the important Justice and the Arts initiative at Santa Clara that is co-directed by Kristin Kusanovich and Carolyn Silberman.

SCM: What different styles of teaching do you experiment with?

Dunbar: I integrate experiential work in Shakespeare in performance into the classroom with options for students to explore short scenes in performance. In addition, I make sure that we include ways of seeing the plays, even if on film, and whenever possible, in live performance. I time my Shakespeare courses around the productions of Shakespeare available here at Santa Clara. And when I help students learn how to read the texts closely, I include the performative implications and dimensions of the plays.

SCM: How do you see Shakespeare’s work affecting society today?

Dunbar: Viewers and readers of Shakespeare can become aware of questions of justice, including gender justice, which many of Shakespeare’s plays explore. Some contemporary Shakespeare scholars have renewed interest in the political aspects of Shakespeare. Additionally there is strong interest in international scholarship and performance of Shakespeare, including an understanding of how Shakespeare’s work can be seen through the lenses of different cultures and is perceived in ways that keep opening up further questions. There is distinguished work in Shakespeare being done, for example, in Japan and India. And increasingly Shakespeare conferences have international dimensions.

SCM: Who is your favorite character from Shakespeare’s plays?

Dunbar: That’s hard to judge. Among the contenders are Hamlet, Edgar, Cordelia, Hermione, and Paulina.

SCM: What is your favorite of Shakespeare’s plays? And what is your favorite stage direction?

Dunbar: King Lear, but The Winter’s Tale is a close second. Of a tragicomic kind, my favorite stage direction is “Exit pursued by a Beare.” That’s in The Winter’s Tale. The most moving stage direction of all, and the most profoundly tragic one, is from King Lear: “Enter LEAR with CORDELIA in his arms.”

SCM: What are you reading right now?

Dunbar: I’m reading the work of Denise Levertov in preparation for a sabbatical quarter that is coming up for me in spring 2012. We can see her work in relation to questions of spirituality and justice, as well as to gender questions. I teach her work in my class in Women Poets, Spirituality and Justice. That’s a course that is linked with the Women’s and Gender Studies program and with new core pathways in Vocation and in Justice and the Arts.  In light of our conversation, let me add: Levertov valued and enjoyed Shakespeare immensely.

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