William & Mary

Professor interprets Shakespeare’s plays for a modern audience

  • Fresh take:
    Fresh take:  William & Mary Professor Theatre Laurie Wolf is exploring different ways of looking at William Shakespeare's plays for her new book, which will be published in 2019.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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William & Mary Professor of Theatre Laurie Wolf believes that William Shakespeare’s work is as relevant and discussable today as it was when he wrote it.

She is re-examining his plays for a new book, with the current working title Shakespeare in Context, to be published by Waveland Press in 2019. Wolf, who has taught and researched Shakespeare for years, is following up on her earlier paper “Shakespeare on film: A Gen X and millennials guide.”

The book is intended to be a new and different take on the works, sparking individual thoughts and considerations.

“There are as many ways to access Shakespeare as there are people and people reading or viewing Shakespeare,” said Wolf, who also serves as chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance. “There’s not one set way; there are many, many ways to access the texts. And these are some of the ways in. But what I want the text to do is to show some of the ways around just having a straightforward approach to the texts, that there are ways that you can look at it.

“You can look at it historically. You can look at it politically. You can look at them economically. You could look at them culturally And how that works.”

She’s trying to write a middle-of-the-road kind of book, she said.

“There seems to be two ends of the spectrum with Shakespeare, either Shakespeare by numbers or a tome on Shakespeare where it’s just heavy going and you look at it and you want to weep,” Wolf said.

“And I’m trying to hit the middle ground, something accessible to students but also that’s user friendly, that will spark ideas, that will give them something to think about when they’re studying for exams or writing a paper or trying to come up with an argument for a paper. And that’s really what I’m looking towards.”

Wolf’s book is intended to be a reference guide that anyone can use. It spans all of Shakespeare’s works, including the three known as the problem plays, written between the late 1590s and the first years of the 17th century, that address contemporary social issues of the time: “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “Measure for Measure” and “Troilus and Cressida.” The book also discusses the well-known, middle time period group of Jacobean-era plays, including dramas “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and “King Lear.”

“Rather than just having kind of straight analyses, textual analyses, I like to take kind of a more thematic approach to talking about the plays,” Wolf said. “So, for instance, in talking about ‘Measure for Measure’ as a problem play, as opposed to just doing an analysis of ‘Measure for Measure,’ looking at it as a problem play and what the problems are that are inherent in that.

“Or when looking at the Jacobean plays, in that section, looking at them through the lens of the art movement mannerism and why that applies to Jacobean history — things not being what they seem to be and so forth.”

Wolf is looking to relate the stories to today’s audience.

“It’s looking at Shakespeare to make it relevant for today,” she said. “Why should we study Shakespeare now? And that’s why I’m trying to do this thematic approach, because it’s not looking at it the same old way. It’s taking all these different approaches to it.”

And why is his work still relevant?

“Because everything he writes about keeps happening,” Wolf said. “Look at some of the history plays and the politics that go on in them. And then you look at the front pages, and it’s going on.”

Her finished book is intended for use in various ways.

“It’s an academic book,” Wolf said. “I’d like to think that a general reader could read it kind of encyclopedically. You know, they go to see a play of Shakespeare’s and what is ‘Hamlet’ really about? That kind of thing.

“I just saw ‘As You Like It,’ what’s a little more of the back story on that? That kind of book. I’m trying to make it as user friendly as possible.”

Wolf is well aware that the subject matter itself is heavy, but she assured that a younger audience especially will be able to relate to her material.

“I’m a very friendly writer, so I do try to make the writing accessible,” she said. “Any theory that I use, I explain fully. I don’t feel like you have to write above your audience’s head to make an impression. You want your audience to read and understand what you’re writing.”