John Mullan is my kind of academic. He’s forthright, original, and engaging. Take his recent highly entertaining book What Matters in Jane Austen? a mini treasure trove of detail about the author who the playwright Samuel Beckett, no less, called “the divine Jane” (As Mullan says, one looks forward to an academic tome on Austen’s influence on the Theatre of the Absurd.) In a chapter on what makes characters blush, for example, Mullan tells us that there are more blushes in Emma than in any other Austen novel, whiles the Austen character who actually blushes most is Fanny in Mansfield Park.
Mullan is very good on Jane Austen – if you don’t believe me take a look at the videos of him on our website. He has plenty to say about Shakespeare, too, so we’re delighted to have secured him as the keynote speaker for our first Connell Guides Revision Bootcamp in March.
What makes Shakespeare so extraordinary is how differently critics see his work, and how open his work is to new, fresh interpretations. Sometimes, as Graham Bradshaw says in his wonderful new guide to Hamlet, it seems as if the playwright himself is orchestrating intense arguments in his plays precisely so that academics can then debate them very intensely “with much flaring of gowns”. Is Shylock a black-hearted villain or a crypto-tragic victim? Is Henry V the mirror of a Christian king, or a cold-hearted Machiavellian manipulator? Is Othello a “Noble Moor” or a deluded egotist? And what about the Ghost in Hamlet? Is the Ghost really a messenger of divine justice (if it is, says Bradshaw, then divine justice must have the morals of a fruit machine), or a devilish instrument of damnation?
One way or another our guides try to answer these questions, as Bradshaw does in his on Hamlet (and his earlier guide on Othello). But there is no final answer to any of these questions, as we all know. Every generation of critics has its own view, or views, and John Mullan, at our boot camp, will be looking at contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare – and at how seriously we should take them. I’m sure he will have plenty of fascinating things to say. If you want to come and hear him, let us know. The details are below.