This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with working Shakespeareans, how they got started in the field, and their ongoing interests. This month, I spoke with Stephen O’Neill, Department of English, National University of Ireland Maynooth and author of Staging Ireland: Representations in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (2007), Shakespeare and the Irish Writer (2010), and the recent Shakespeare and YouTube: New Media Forms of the Bard (2014).
How did you get into Shakespeare Studies?
My interest began early into secondary (or high) school and, like other people, was sparked by an inspirational teacher. We covered The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and Hamlet and his depth of knowledge, capacity for close reading, and interest in criticism (some of it I now recognize was a little dated!) was illuminating. When I got to university, Shakespeare was a significant part of the syllabus but I also sought out opportunities to take electives on Shakespeare. One included Janet Clare’s “Rewriting Shakespeare” which explored adaptations and appropriations from Nahum Tate to Edward Bond. It was a revelation to learn about the after-effects of adaptation on the Shakespearean text. I went on to pursue the MA in Renaissance studies at University College Dublin and with Professor Clare’s encouragement, to a PhD on representations of Ireland in Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama.
Tell us about your time in grad school….
My dissertation involved close work with Shakespeare’s histories but also chasing down images of the Irish and Ireland in such plays as The Misfortunes of Arthur, Captain Thomas Stukeley and Sir John Oldcastle. The immersion in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was immensely instructive and has always made me conscious of the need to unsettle presumptions about Shakespeare’s relation to “his” contemporaries. Graduate school at UCD English was wonderful – I met so many interesting and decent people, some of who are among my closest friends. I was teaching a good deal during the PhD but managed to see it into completion within five years. Like most of my graduate school peers, I was anxious about the job market. When I was entering it in 2000s, there was very little movement or expansion in the Irish University sector (things haven’t really changed on that front). However a four-year contract post in Renaissance literature came up at National University of Ireland Maynooth and I was fortunate enough to get it, only 2 months after submitting the thesis. In 2007 I got a permanent post there. One of the richest professional experiences was having Professor Jean Howard as the external assessor on the interview panel. Afterwards, she encouraged me to attend the SAA – I went to my first one in Dallas in 2007 and have been a regular attendee ever since.
Tell us about your newest book.
The book is not really new anymore – in fact it’s one year old on 24 April 2015! One of the things that I like most about being an academic is having the freedom to pursue new interests. In 2007 when my first book Staging Ireland: Representations in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama was published, I would never have envisaged myself going on to write a book on YouTube Shakespeare – I simply didn’t think my research would go in the direction of Shakespeare and new media.
The concept for Shakespeare and YouTube emerged from various teaching contexts. Like other Shakespeare teachers, I started integrating video clips into lectures and seminars in a way that became habitual. I was interested in the sheer volume of Shakespeare material on YouTube and the issues it raised – not just older or familiar questions about Shakespeare’s cultural capital but also questions about the production of identity online, Shakespeare as an enabling and also delimiting metalanguage for race and gender, and the way YouTube’s algorithm shapes what we look at and search for. The book looks at the different forms and genres of Shakespeare on YouTube and tries to deepen our sense of vernacular productions of Shakespearean texts and motifs. I’m interested in how YouTube variously acts as patron, archive, laboratory and how a variety of roles that are associated with Shakespeare’s reception such as performer, director, editor, translator become widely available. Here we might suggest that YouTube Shakespeare productively disrupts more traditional constructions of the scholar or expert. I also wanted the book to have a pedagogical application – so there’s a chapter called the “Teaching Tube” that weighs up the affordances of the platform and includes suggestions for assignments that instructors can get students working on.
Thoughts on the profession…
I like how genuinely open Shakespeare studies is as scholarly network and research field – as I say to my students, “there is nowhere Shakespeare studies won’t go” in terms of subjects and texts. I know this is slightly innocent – there are lots of ways in which our profession is still too hierarchical and inequitable. It can also seem too much about the transmission of white male cultural privilege, but there are encouraging signs of change. American based colleagues inform me of the state of the job market there. In Ireland, PhDs entering the job market find themselves competing for the likes of 9 month contract jobs that arise out of a full Faculty member’s sabbatical. So they look to the UK market, or try the US. For mid-career academics, promotion possibilities are slowly beginning to emerge on the horizon after 4 years of national economic austerity. Public sector pay was slashed and promotion rounds frozen. It seems important that tenured Shakespeare scholars make an ethical decision not to close the door behind them – to encourage and create opportunities for PhDs and emerging scholars. A colleague who invited me to contribute to a forthcoming volume of essays revealed the editors’ commitment to including PhDs in the project, a good example of ethical professional practice.
I’m interested in debates about the future of the monograph and academic publishing, especially regarding its traditional bias toward closed access. Publishers are experimenting with open-access, in the form of a free sample chapter that is available as a widget for a fixed time-period. These are intended to act as promos for the book, leading the customer towards the digital check-out. Blogs and social media are fast becoming a dimension of academic publishing and networking. Perhaps these digital technologies offer more open avenues for exchange than traditional publication modes. We don’t need to see digital and print cultures as polar opposites. Academic are working across these different but increasingly connected platforms and modes of transmission. A blog can lead a reader toward the author’s other publications. The question here is which one should be cited? Which is perceived as more authoritative? Or to flip the question away from older notions of value and authority, which is the more interesting, inviting and easier to access?
I think it’s important that as academics and Shakespeareans we remain mindful of the privilege attached to our jobs. The pay-offs are considerable: the opportunity to contribute to cultural debate, to shape a text’s reception, to participate in a dynamic scholarly community. Academic writing may be a niche activity but it continues to have its own value, surprises and pleasures. At the same time, I think we need to be careful not to overstate what Shakespeare can do! But Shakespeare texts can be like coming home – I’m interested in recent theoretical emphases on affect and on our presence in relation to the presentist text. That need not entail forgetting history. It allows us to talk about why Shakespeare works – and why it sometimes doesn’t.
Weirdest and funniest Shakespeare-vid on YouTube is ….?
There are so many, of course. But as an example of an amateur YouTube Shakespeare production, Sonnet 18 Illustrated always makes me laugh – and it gets a laugh too in lectures. I also like how it reacts to the young man in the Sonnets, in contrast to other videos that avoid the subject altogether. And for weirdest – because its talking bard is just uncanny and creepy, it has to be the ghost in the tube that is 7 ages of man.wmv
As always, if you have something odd or unfamiliar to share or promote, drop me, Jeffrey Kahan, a line at Vortiger@hotmail.com, subject line: The Blotted Line.