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 Michael P. Jensen, author of over 300 publications as sole or co-author. He contributed chapters to Shakespeare After Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture, two volumes (Greenwood Press, 2007), Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio: The Researcher’s Guide (British Universities Film and Video Counsel, 2009), and The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts (Edinburgh University Press, 2011). He is a Shakespeare Newsletter Contributing Editor.
You chose a different career path than the one you are on now, didn’t you?
Yes. In prehistoric times I thought I would be an Evangelical minister. My grad school was a little seminary in Palo Alto. I left early. It is complicated and personal for more than just me, so I don’t want to go into details publicly. I usually keep it simple and tell people that I came to believe I had been wrong about some things and the school had problems with that. That isn’t strictly true, but it is true enough.
How did you transition to Shakespeare scholarship?
It was that darn BBC TV series of Shakespeare plays that began in 1978. I had not done well in my undergraduate Shakespeare class. I have many rationalizations: I was sick for most of the first three weeks, I took the final with a 102 temperature, and I made the grievous error of thinking that it was OK to disagree with my professor. These are my excuses, but I assume I was graded on the results. My professor is now a fairly well-known actor, and his grasp of Shakespeare was from that perspective. Scholarship was over his head.
It is never a good idea to tell me that I can’t do something unless you want to motivate me, and I was motivated when I received a D in that class. I thought I was ready for Shakespeare when the BBC series was broadcast, though I wasn’t. Those first episodes were not very good. I blamed myself for letting my mind wander, not realizing until later that most of those early shows were so dull that many minds wandered. I remedied that by preparing in advance, reading the play and the introductions in the first Riverside edition the week before a new play aired. I then knew the story and some introductory scholarship about it. That allowed me to just enjoy the actors saying those words, even when the episodes were bad. I went on from there, reading plays, watching performances, and always reading scholarship about a play along with reading the plays and watching the performances.
Cut to October 1990. There was a Hamlet conference at UC Berkeley’s satellite campus. I met a lot of amazing scholars and was immersed in Hamlet for three days. Mel Gibson was a surprise guest, there to talk about his soon to be released film version of the play. I thought that some of his comments were worth recording for posterity and managed a couple of minutes extra discussion with him. I wrote his comments up for the now semi-defunct Shakespeare on Film Newsletter, it has been absorbed into Shakespeare Bulletin. It was my first cover story and my first publication in a scholarly journal. Even better, co-editor Bernice W. Kliman became a friend. Bernice suggested new projects and was always encouraging.
How open have scholars and editors been to your work?
I’ve been amazed, Jeff. Here I am without a teaching position or an advanced degree presuming to play with the grown-ups. I expected to be smacked down and told to get out of the pool. This hasn’t happened. Nearly everybody has been respectful and welcoming. Shakespeareans are great people and completely open to the great work done by others even if those others come with my baggage, or should that be lack of baggage?
You’ve also created your own open access version of a database. Tell us about it.
I acquired a background in marketing, and so have started a website with images for those who wish to study the marketing of Shakespeare films. I hope that Shakespeare film scholars will someday become sophisticated about the marketing of these films, for marketing is half the story of how the movies were perceived by their first audiences, the untold half. Aside from Russell Jackson, and with some useful rumblings by Doug Lanier and Emma French, Shakespeare film scholars are woefully ignorant of this nearly decisive factor governing early perception and reception. The site is far from complete and always under construction. I wish I had money to work on nothing but it for a year. Hello, MacArthur Foundation. Those who wish to use what is now available will find the site at http://www.michaelpjensen.com/shakespeare_cinema_marketing_images.
You have over 300 publications, but only about 80 are on Shakespeare and the other writers of his time. What was your writing career like before Shakespeare?
At first, I wrote anything I could get published to have a record of publications. Then I tried to make money writing. I have the habit of wanting to write what interests me, rather than something commercial, which is a bad career strategy. The result is that I have published some poems and short stories, I wrote a book review program for a Bay Area radio station, dabbled in advertising, and wrote many book reviews and little essays for print.
My first book was on Alzheimer’s disease, co-written with Helen D. Davies. Moving on to Shakespeare, I have written a few chapters on Shakespeare in books edited by others, some journal articles and reviews, and I write the “Talking Books” column in Shakespeare Newsletter, which gave me the title Contributing Editor.
Tell us about your column.
I interview prominent Shakespeareans about the books they find most useful in their work and influential in their careers. Stanley Wells was kind enough to be my first guest and twelve years later I’m interviewing Martin Wiggins. Lots of people read “Talking Books,” which results in lots of people wanting to buy drinks for me at conferences. I enjoy the company.
How do you choose guests for “Talking Books”?
Early on I just sent a dozen template questions, but now I read everything I can by the scholars I interview in order to write what I hope are interesting and insightful questions, so their work has to interest me or I’ll never get through the research. I invite people whose work I admire, who have written a lot of books, and are well-known in our field. Jeff, I can’t tell you what a thrill it is when I ask somebody to be a guest in the column and they reply, “I love ‘Talking Books,’ but I never dreamed you ask me!” which paraphrases something said to me maybe fifteen or eighteen times. These are the scholars I admire most, and they think what I do is cool? That blows my little mind.
What drew you to your research interests?
Tricky, that. I identify areas of interest to me where no or few Shakespeareans have gone before. After the column, I am probably best known for my work on Shakespeare radio, comic books, and comic strips. When I approached Peter Holland about an article on BBC radio Shakespeare for Shakespeare Survey 61, I warned him that I don’t do Theory, I just present facts. Peter was kind enough to say that we’ll let others theorize from the facts I present, which was wonderfully liberating. I did not give it a second thought when writing my second article for Peter.
I’m also very interested in Shakespeare documentaries. Documentaries are an area of Shakespeare media studies virtually untouched by scholarship. I lectured on documentaries in my Shakespeare and Modern Culture class when I was teaching, and will lead a seminar on docs at the next Shakespeare Association of America conference in the hope of finding chapters for a book I want to edit on the subject. I hope readers of this interview contact me with chapter ideas for the book, even if they are not able to participate in the seminar: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You do all this, and yet you do not have a teaching position.
True. I wish I did. I have lectured here and there and was an adjunct at Southern Oregon University a couple of years ago. I had great student evaluations, too, above the campus average in all of the seven categories evaluated. I’d still be working, but the guy who hired me moved on and his replacement saw my education on my CV and did not take me seriously. It must have been strange for him to see me sitting with two friends well-known in our field at the last Shakespeare Association of American meeting. Living well really is the best revenge.
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.