Dr Emma Whipday
School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics
I work on Early modern drama and culture, particularly on the themes of gender, power and class. At the moment I’m working on brother and sister relationships in early modern drama and I’m interested in themes including domestic abuse, brothers claiming proprietary rights to their sisters’ bodies, and incest. I want to understand brother and sister relationships in the cultural imagination in early modern England and how that relates to the lived experience.
With this project I’m focusing on elite rather than popular sources because not many popular sources about sibling relationships have survived from that period. I use collections such as letters, pamphlets and ballads to understand the cultural conversations of the time! For example, there is one amazing woman called Lettice Kinnersley who writes a lot to her brother during this time about the ongoing battle she's having with her mother-in-law who lives in the same house. When her mother-in-law managed to convince her husband that she is not to be trusted she is confined to her room and not allowed her own servants, with her mother in-law's servant spying on her.
I have another parallel project where I’m co-editing an essay collection called Playing and Playgoing: Actor, Audience, Performance in Early Modern England which is about trying to understand the phenomenological experience of performers and audiences in early modern playhouses. So those are my two main fields of interest: performance, and power, gender, and family, and those two things sometimes come together.
I studied English literature and focused on domesticity in the early modern period, the home as an idealised space. I learnt about popular print and domestic tragedies, particularly in the Jacobean period – lots of blood, gore and horror! Then I did a Masters at UCL in Shakespeare in History which is sadly now closed, and I found out there were very few studies on domestic tragedies and true crime in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. The fact that the place where you are meant to be the safest becomes the place we are most vulnerable really interested me, and following that led me to my PhD.
I'm still essentially a literary scholar not a drama scholar so my first method is always close reading but that is traditionally applied to only literary texts. I close read all texts I engage with even if it's a very sensational, over the top ‘cheap’ account of a crime that was published for a penny. I use the same methods of literary analysis for both kinds of texts and try to take both seriously as cultural artefacts. Close reading informs the way I think about performance, and I close read theatrically as well as textually.
So, for example, I tried to reconstruct a play called The Tragedy of Mary by performing it using modern rehearsal methods which includes actors having a very limited rehearsal period and only having their own lines and short cues to work with. We recreated Merry to both understand how those rehearsal methods worked in performance and to close read that play through the lens of that performance, which I call theatrical close reading.
Another way I approach practice, in collaboration with Lucy Munro from King’s College London, is exploring lost plays that are based on true crime. There is a play called Keep the Widow Waking that's based on the forced marriage of a wealthy widow to a young man. He forcibly made her drunk, drugged and then married her to try and gain control of her fortune. We know that he then commissioned a play about it to publicly shame her and whilst the play didn't survive, the court records around the case did. We did a verbatim theatre experiment with another practitioner and actors exploring what would happen if we staged the court records to imagine what the play might have been like (https://link-springer-com.libproxy.ncl.ac.uk/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-36867-8_14)
Finally, the third approach I take is a playwright, where I ask questions around the themes of my research (family, gender, power, consent in early modern England) as I write plays. I don't know how to quantify it but I'm realising that my creative practice is a form of thinking through research and it's a form of impact. (https://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/articles/archive/2019/04/shakespearesnewcontemporaries/)
Which methods excite you?
Oh good question! I'm really excited by embodied research methods for example that involve exploring in archives and what and how people experience the world in a bodily way and trying to reconstruct that. Or, through practice and performance, trying to get modern bodies to imagine how early modern bodies might have felt.
I’m also excited by research methods that bring the subjective ‘I’ of the scholar into research. All of the research worlds I'm involved in are about interpersonal relationships and actor-audience research so it seems so strange to try to remove the scholar’s own subjective and relational experiences from those questions.
I’m also really intrigued by Digital Humanities work, I'm not involved in constructing databases or anything like that but I'm a user of that work once it exists! For example, the Early Broadside Ballad Archive (https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/). It has been an absolute goldmine for my research! Online resources like that are great as they make things so accessible and also help you take a step towards interpreting performance-based resources from the past.
Because what I do is so historically-based I haven't received training on things like interviews and surveys, so when I have used post performance questionnaires I just sort of make them up! So learning more about those types of methods would be useful.
Lots of people! I find what Jennifer Richards does very exciting because she is on one hand, a very rigorous English literature scholar who works textually in archives and with close reading, but she also does exciting stuff with reconstructed voices and working with vocal practitioners. I find the movement between those two methodologies very exciting.
And then people at Shakespeare’s Globe like Farah Karim-Cooper and Will Tosh who marry live performance with reconstructing the past. I don’t know anywhere else where the Education department of a theatre works with theatre practitioners and a theatre space to recreate rigorous, historicised, academic research through practice (except the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia).
I suppose I wish my younger self had the confidence to follow the research methods that appealed to me because I'm not really into literary theory. I use a tiny bit of Freud when I'm discussing the uncanny or something, but for a long time I felt like a failure for not drawing more on that. There’s a big tendency in the field I work in to refer to the methodology of putting texts alongside wider cultural artefacts and non-literary texts so they illuminate one another as ‘new historicism’ and I wish I’d realised sooner that it is a valid method!
It’s similar with performance-based research. Where I did my MA and PhD there was no tradition of performance and it can be seen that you’re just ‘having fun’ putting on a play and if you can’t ‘prove a fact’ then you can’t gain from the process. I wish I’d always had the confidence to follow what excites me!
Yes! The only one I can think of is a closet drama (written to be read not performed) myself and colleague performed to test how it might have worked. We’d never used this method before and my colleague found a portrait which led us to believe a woman associated with the text had performed the main character, Cleopatra. We wrote an article on it and the first peer review pointed out we couldn’t prove something about a historical performance (in this case, that it took place) by staging it today. It made us realise we needed to think differently about what it is we got from that performance, and how we used the research method. It was a really helpful first blunder as we never tried to ‘prove’ things afterwards! It changed the language of how we approached the methodology and that was really helpful in writing the final version of the article (https://earlytheatre.org/earlytheatre/article/view/2548).
Alessandro Boussalem – he was a research assistant for our Performance Research Network, and is now a Teaching Fellow at Edinburgh University. He does really interesting performance-based work. In my own field, Lucy Clarke (https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/people/lucy-clarke) and Hailey Bachrach (https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/hailey-bachrach(17a19b00-1947-4617-bbff-65b2b790d8fa).html) are both doing very exciting things with genre, history, and theatre.
It’s not a book on methods, but rather a book that showcases a particular methodology in an innovative but accessible way: Shakespeare/Sense (Arden Shakespeare, 2020), edited by Simon Smith. In fact Arden’s entire Shakespeare/ series is an excellent introduction to the wide range of methodologies currently being explored in Shakespeare studies.