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The Art and Politics of Shakespearean Narrative

The Art and Politics of Shakespearean Narrative SSHRC Insight Research Project, 2014-18 (funding pending)

Contacts: shakespeare [dot] iplai [at] mcgill [dot] ca, Project Direction - paul [dot] yachnin [at] mcgill [dot] ca (Paul Yachnin)

Shakespeare and Performance Research Team (SPRiTe)

From Oprah Winfrey to “Heritage Minutes” to The Soul of Design: Harnessing the Power of Plot to Create Extraordinary Products (Devin), storytelling has become one of the key personal, political, and managerial discursive activities of the twenty-first century. We tell stories to discover who we most authentically are as individuals, communities, and nations. Storytelling helps business leaders build effective organizations (see fastcompany.com/3004132/most-read-leadership-stories-2012). In his recent book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Brian Boyd tells us that human cognition itself was formed by imaginative storytelling practices that developed in the distant past (see also Gottschall). “Narrative is that kind of speaking,” Michael Neill says, “which offers to put a form on the inchoate matter of experience; and with its emphasis on cause and effect, on beginnings, middles, and ends, it is precisely a making of a sense” (218).

Among other tasks, the Art and Politics of Shakespearean Narrative project will develop an historical account of the power of storytelling that will challenge and enlighten modern ideas about narrative. Shakespeare is among the most accomplished storytellers in world literature; but he is also, we argue, a writer who demonstrates the disruptive capacities of narrative—how stories can break things apart as well as bring them together, how storytelling can be a critical, analytical practice, and how stories are always shared property (shared among writers, actors, audiences, readers) and therefore always to some degree divided against themselves.

The “Shakespeare Narrative” project will study the aesthetic, historical, and political dimensions of theatrical storytelling. Stories provide the vital force of Shakespeare’s plays and are key to the longevity of his art. Hamlet's dying wish is that Horatio will, in this harsh world, draw his breath in pain to tell Hamlet's story. Hamlet believes that a well-recounted story of his life has the best chance of capturing the meaning of his personhood and articulating his capacity to act justly in a morally confounded world. In the event, Horatio seems no better prepared than Hamlet himself to tell Hamlet’s story. The play suggests how important narrative is for both the individual and the polity, but it also demonstrates how difficult it is for stories to capture the complexity of persons and actions. In the face of Horatio’s incapacity, it is the players, playgoers, readers, critics, and rewriters from 1600 to the present who emerge as the true addressees of Hamlet’s charge. Generations of people have retold, reenacted, and rewritten Hamlet’s story. Some have fashioned their own life-stories by the measure of Hamlet’s. They have together formed a long-term Shakespearean polity by dint of their shared relationship with Hamlet’s story.

Shakespeare’s drama has had a long, influential life in part because his stories enlist audiences as apprentice storytellers. This is largely an effect of the modality of Shakespearean narrative. The traditional understanding is that fiction and drama are different because fiction is both mimetic and diegetic while drama is exclusively mimetic. Fiction has a narrator, drama does not (see Richardson). But Shakespeare complicates this division by filling his plays with characters who are narrators of themselves. Hamlet spends much of his time, including in his soliloquies, telling his story as well as the story of his family. Since character-based diegesis is always partial and prejudiced, the organizing and perspective-making work of narration falls to spectators and readers; they carry it forward in dialogue with the characters’ own accounts of the action.

Shakespeare’s plays also develop critical versions of the stories he collects from major fields of thought and practice in his own time—principal among these, law, history, and philosophy. Finally, his drama’s long life is an effect of how sharing the task of narration with spectators and readers makes his plays answerable to changing ideological conditions. That is why he is, we believe, a particularly valuable conversation partner for modern legal thinkers, historiographers, and philosophers, especially at a time when narrativity itself is a central theoretical concern.

The research program is organized along four interrelated axes: (1) Forms and Practices of Theatrical Narrative (core axis), (2) Law and Theatrical Narrative, (3) Theatre, Narrative, History, and (4) Stories of the Self. Each axis will develop its own line of inquiry. Axes 2 and 3 will feature mini-conferences that bring team members and external researchers together around questions having to do with narrative, performance, law, history, and so on. Each axis will remain mindful of the other three axes in ways that contribute to the overall goals of the project. All four axes will inform each other because the team will develop shared research goals and questions. Ongoing exchanges among team members will be facilitated and recorded on a website that makes available work-in-progress and that provides space for comment, critique, and discussion.

The project will be framed by two creative undertakings. The first year will draw the team together around a case study and a theatrical, multi-media performance of Shakespeare’s late romance, Cymbeline. The play is strange, its plots labyrinthine, its denouement astonishingly tangled, yet it will serve the project very well because it is concerned with historiographical and legal questions, because it is itself a radical experiment in mixed mimesis and diegesis, and because Patrick Leroux’s adaptation will experiment with narrative across different media. The performance of the play will also serve the project’s public outreach and exchange goals. The final year of the project will see a “Thinking Stories” workshop for actors, artists, scholars, and members of the public. “Thinking Stories” will be led by playwright, novelist, and director, Kent Stetson. The participants will spend a day making artworks (in theatrical and other forms) where all the artworks will be based on stories by Shakespeare (see Knowledge Mobilization).

While the research axes are assigned particular years for concentrated work, it is expected that work on all axes will begin before their designated year and will continue to develop after that year. For example, Patrick Leroux’s experimental production of Cymbeline will be produced and staged in 2014-2015, but there will be follow-up work in the subsequent year. Moreover, we expect that mutually informing lines of connection will develop among the research axes. Again the production of Cymbeline, with its confrontation among various versions of the Cymbeline story (by Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Shaw, Sondheim, Leroux, and others) will speak to the Stories of the Self axis and also connect substantially with the program’s interest in Shakespearean historiography.

Project Director

  • Paul Yachnin, English and IPLAI, McGill


  • Mark Antaki, Law, McGill

  • Michael Bristol, English, McGill

  • David Davies, Philosophy, McGill

  • Meredith Evans, English, Concordia

  • Martin Kreiswirth, English, McGill

  • Patrick Leroux, English and Études françaises, Concordia

  • Carolyn Sale, English, Alberta


  • Wes Folkerth, English, McGill

  • Desmond Manderson, Law and Humanities, Australian National University

  • Patrick Neilson, English, McGill

  • Mark Salber Phillips, History, Carleton

  • Fiona Ritchie, English, McGill

  • Kent Stetson

  • Myrna Wyatt Selkirk, English, McGill