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Lessons from the bard

Professor Lisa Dickson says William Shakespeare's plays have the power to help people create a better world.

April 05th, 2023

Lisa Dickson, a UNBC professor specializing in Renaissance Literature and Shakespeare.

Dickson co-authored a book examining four of Shakespeare’s plays that she says “engage in conversations about hope, empathy and love, and all of the wicked questions and challenges that arise when diverse people engage each other, sometimes more or less hospitably, in debates.”


Five centuries after his death in 1616, William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the most influential writer in the English language. His plays continue to be staged around the world, and heavily studied in schools and universities as much for Shakespeare’s writing as to broaden perspectives on humanity.

Lisa Dickson, a professor in the English Department at the University of Northern BC takes Shakespeare a step further in her classroom. She says studying Shakespeare “is an orientation toward the future, a belief in our capacity as human beings to know and to transform ourselves and the world, and a commitment to be moved toward ethical action grounded in love, empathy and an acceptance of difference, difficulty and complexity.”

A tall order, yet all is explained in Dickson’s new book co-authored with two other Shakespeare lovers, Shannon Murray and Jessica Riddell: Shakespeare’s Guide to Hope, Life, and Learning (UTP $29.95). Here, Dickson discusses her ideas in this BCBookLook interview.

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BCBookLook: When did Shakespeare’s work first make an impact on you?

Lisa Dickson: I fell in love with Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival in 1986, in the middle of Act 2 of Hamlet, precisely at the moment when Brent Carver [the actor playing Hamlet] said: “Remorseless, lecherous, treacherous, kindless villain! O VENGEANCE!” In that moment, between that shout launched to the rafters and its ironic, self-deprecating landing—“O, what an ass am I”—I knew that I wanted to live there forever. I switched my major the next day and have never looked back.

Actor Brent Carver as Hamlet, 1986.

BCBL: What kind of book is this? Is it about Shakespeare’s work or more about what students (and people in general) can learn from Shakespeare’s writing?

LD: This book is a lot of things. For students, for instance, it’s an invitation to open lots of different kinds of doors into the plays. Each essay offers tools that can bring you into deeper relationship with the play. But the book is more about why art and literature and teaching and learning are crucially important to us here and now. Shakespeare’s works are a place where we can have those conversations, because, not only does he have those conversations in the plays, the theatre gives us a model for how to have those conversations in generative, generous ways. We walk you through an experience of four popular plays with those principles in mind. You don’t have to be an academic to enjoy the book. We’re all learners, and the book is for learners, that is, anyone with curiosity and an interest in Shakespeare or, indeed, the question of how we build hopeful, empathetic and loving spaces where we can learn from each other.

BCBL: What is the difference between “critical” hope and ordinary hope?

LD: Critical hope is an orientation toward the world, a belief about the world and a way of moving and acting in the world. It is an orientation toward the future, a belief in our capacity as human beings to know and to transform ourselves and the world, and a commitment to be moved toward ethical action grounded in love, empathy and an acceptance of difference, difficulty and complexity. It is “critical” in the sense that it brings to this ethical endeavour an awareness of complex contexts—historical, political, social, artistic etc.—and a sensitivity to the messiness and “wickedness” of any process of transformation that is inclusive of diverse experiences, needs, perspectives and complicating contexts. So, this is not an airy concept. It’s not about hoping for a particular outcome, as in the more usual sense of the word, but is a means of opening up the possibility of transformation itself. We have two mottos. One is from Ira Shor who speaks of “the hopeful challenging the actual in the name of the possible.” The other is from John D. Caputo, who tells us that “We never are what we are; something different is always possible.” We are going into the future, and if we are to have a future at all, we must go together. Critical hope is a means of going together.

BCBL: Why did you choose the four plays you did for this book (King Lear, As You Like It, Henry V and Hamlet)?

LD: For several reasons. On a more technical level, we wanted to test our critical principles in a range of genres, and these plays cover territories of tragedy, history and comedy. On a practical level, because this book is aimed at a more general audience, we chose plays that are more popular. It’s not necessary to have read the plays or to have a detailed understanding of them in order to read the book, but these four plays loom pretty large in the cultural imagination, so they are a good place to begin. On a more philosophical level, these plays are each in their own ways engaged in conversations about hope, empathy and love, and all of the wicked questions and challenges that arise when diverse people engage each other, sometimes more or less hospitably, in debates. And we chose these plays because we love them—their beauty and complexity and nuance and profound humanity.

BCBL: Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?

LD: Well, Hamlet changed my life and I never get tired of poring over it. It’s a new thing in every change of the light. But I love Henry V, too, for all the ways that it challenges us to think critically about how history is made, how heroes are made, how we buy in to, and resist the allure, of brilliant rhetoric. It’s also a favourite because of the way that it relentlessly invites us into it, demanding that we use our “imaginary powers” to make a whole kingdom out of three guys and a hat. We have tremendous power and responsibility, we wondrous creatures whose imagination allows us to envision entire worlds. How can we embrace that power? What worlds do we want to envision? So, I love those two very, very much. A close second is all of them.

BCBL: Has your interpretation of Shakespeare’s work changed over time?

LD: Yes, of course. I would hope that my vision has deepened and broadened since my youth. My love has only grown, keeping pace with my expanded sense of how complex and messy Shakespeare is. I’ve grown much less interested in being right about Shakespeare, and way more interested in the opportunities he gives us to explore and rattle and open all the trap doors and revel in the weirdness and the contradiction and the utterly inexhaustible possibility of art. I’m much more interested in diving in with learners and way less interested in being the expert. If there’s one thing Shakespeare shows us it’s that anybody who thinks they’ve got “The Answer,” doesn’t.

BCBL: Anything else you would like to add?

LD: Only that this book is a true labour of love. We [Lisa Dickson, Shannon Murray and Jessica Riddell]  began as colleagues and became the best of friends in the writing of this book. We made each other brave, since it takes some bravery to tell academia that it is possible to be simultaneously rigorous and joyful, carefully critical and delighted. We hope that our readers will take the invitation we offer to break open, to embrace messiness and conversation and their “imaginary powers” to envision, as Paulo Freire says, “the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love.” 9781487570514

The authors, Lisa Dickson (right), Shannon Murray (left) and Jessica Riddell (middle) hamming it up at a Shakespeare memorial.

 

 

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