Student research connects Shakespeare to today

Last Thursday, April 9, with the sounds of the Student Research Celebration in the background, English professor Gretchen Minton and students Chase Templet, John Woodgerd and Zach Stenberg presented their research projects in English literature to a room full of peers, other professors and academics. Set up as a panel, with a question and answer segment following the three paper presentations, their exhibition was titled From Early Modern London to Infinite Space: On William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton.

The papers from Templet and Woodgerd were both products of Undergraduate Scholars Program projects and studied elements of Shakespeare. Templet look at what he called the “revenger’s tragedy,” exploring “Hamlet” and works of Thomas Middleton, another English playwright. “Some of these lines, you don’t even know if they’re supposed to be ironic and it depends so much on performance. It has to be a work of speculation. What I have to do is find what scholars have said already and use it as a gateway to the text,” Templet said.

Woodgerd discussed the carnival archetype and historical masque tradition with special attention to Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” The masque tradition involved short plays put on by and for the wealthy. “It was pretty late into my research when I dove into the masque tradition, but it seemed important. There were these shorter plays and the focus wouldn’t be on the performance or the lines, but on the costume design,” Woodgerd explained. “They had perspective sets where the set would look kind of terrible to everyone else but King James, because the set was designed in such a way that it would only give it depth for him.”

Stenberg’s research moved from literary study into the modern application of Shakespeare in our daily lives and culture. As an ex-inmate of Deer Lodge prison himself, he returned to the prison as a teacher with Dr. Minton to teach a class on Shakespeare. His paper began as a narrative of his own time spent at Deer Lodge and his eventual turn to reading classic literature, like “The Grapes of Wrath,” “War and Peace” and, finally, the complete works of Shakespeare. In his presentation he asked, “Can literature be an agency of change?” With no hesitation he said, “Yes.”

Stenberg’s project began last semester following the play “Robben Island Bible.” “The whole play is based on this notion that people take these passages out of context in order to speak to their own experience,” Minton said, “One of the conversations I had with Zach [Stenberg] had to do with taking Shakespeare out of context and what that means. You can be a historical purist and say it has to be in context, you have to understand what was going on in 1599. Or you can say ‘What’s wrong with just giving this text to these guys who have never read Shakespeare before?’ If it speaks to you in this way right now, it can’t be wrong.”

“[Teaching at the prison] was a lot more emotionally draining than I thought it would be, but it was rewarding enough that we’re going to do it again in May,” Stenberg said.

He went on to explain his own inspiration, “America has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of that population is in prison. In Montana specifically, crime rate is going down but prison population is going up. What they’re doing isn’t working. Having these classes in prisons is important. One of our students is applying to college right now. It has an impact; it can change their lives. It changed mine.”

Eventually, Minton and Stenberg would like to expand their class to incorporate an entire Shakespeare production put on by the inmates. “One of the things that kept striking me week after week is being in front of a classroom where that was the best thing that happened in these students’ week,” Minton said. “For two hours every Friday night those guys got to be free. It wasn’t prison; it was a classroom.”

“I was anxious when we were starting out because we all have such different papers and subject matter that are loosely in the same family,” Templet said, “I think you can really see the impact theater has on people and that’s where our papers come together, this idea of setting aside the social constructions for a while. The theater provides a safe place for people. It’s an environment in which you can learn a lot about yourself.”