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A New Way of Looking at Shakespeare

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    English professor Michael is working on a new book that examines the linguistic and cultural interactions in Shakespeare’s works. (Photo by Lance Holt)

English professor and former students collaborate on a new book that examines linguistic and cultural interactions in Shakespeare’s works

Between his Jewish heritage, multinational family background and love of Shakespeare, English professor Michael Saenger is full of linguistic and cultural knowledge. Together, these have led him to his current project: a book titled Interlinguicity, Internationality and Shakespeare.

If the word “interlinguicity” sounds unfamiliar, that’s because it is. Saenger said he coined the term to encompass what he describes as “the overlapping and interlocking of different language systems within individual people, cities or countries.”

“By coming up with this term interlinguicity, I’m trying to create a conceptual space for that idea as a completely different way of thinking about what happens with languages,” Saenger said.

Throughout his life, Saenger noticed that although there are official languages, these languages are not consistent across the board. Every language contains dialects and regional differences. A large part of this is due to bilingual speakers, who can slip easily between languages and who frequently borrow words and phrases, which eventually become absorbed by the neighboring language.

“We have this tendency to emphasize the monolingual model of conceptualizing languages,” Sanger said. “What I’m arguing is that, the whole time we try to simplify the concept of language, what we’re ignoring is that there’s a massive amount of life at the borders, the intersections. It became clear to me that we needed a new word to explain what’s happening here that asks us to think entirely differently about the whole idea of language.”

One example of this close to home is Spanglish, a mixture of English and Spanish most often spoken by Mexican-Americans.

“I’m asking people to entertain the possibility that Spanglish is not some weird thing that a few people in Texas do,” Saenger said. “Essentially what I’m arguing is that Spanglish is, and has always been, the normal state of human communication, which is to co-habit multiple linguistic systems and to mix them.”

The book is a compilation of eight essays from professors across the United States, Canada and England, as well as two essays from Southwestern graduates Brian Gingrich and Lauren Coker. Saenger wrote the introduction and edited the essays.

“All the essays really try to explore that kind of neat narrative of languages as separate animals in separate cages of the zoo that occasionally escape,” Sanger said. “That, in fact, has never been true, except in dictionaries, but dictionaries are up on the wall. As soon as you speak a language, you mix it.”

Shakespeare holds an important place in the book as the medium through which the authors explore interliguicity.

“Professor Sanger’s collection is part of a really important move to view Shakespeare’s works more through linguistic and cultural interactions,” said Gingrich, a 2008 graduate who is now working on his Ph.D. in English at Princeton. “There’s always the threat that Shakespeare could be elevated above those interactions, which would be a real shame, because they’re so important in understanding his playfulness with language and the cultural particularity that penetrated his works.”

The first section of Saenger’s book deals with the proliferation and interaction of different languages during Shakespeare’s time.

“Shakespeare’s interesting in a lot of ways: he comes from a culture that had multiple languages circulating around,” Saenger said. “A lot of people have no idea that foreign languages were so active in Shakespeare’s London. There were Arabic tutors; there were neighborhoods that were predominantly French-speaking; Dutch was completely normal as a street language. People think of Shakespeare as a very English author, but that’s not really accurate.”

In the second section of the book, Saenger moves on to strife within the English language specifically. Coker, a 2005 graduate who is finishing her Ph.D. in English at Saint Louis University, contributed to this section with an essay titled “Continental Sexuality and the Auditory Construction of Early Modern Englishness.” It focuses on puns within the works of Shakespeare, Sidney and Webster, which “rely on bawdy wordplay in order to characterize French and Italian characters as hypersexualized others,” according to Coker.

“This subject allowed me to combine my primary research interest − early modern representations of the body, especially in English Renaissance drama − with my secondary interest in puns, which really depend on tone, context and audience for their full effect(s) to take hold,” Coker said. “The puns in early modern literature (especially in Shakespeare’s works) are commonly acknowledged, but scholars have yet to flesh out the full effects of this bawdy wordplay as it relates to early modern national identities.”

The third and final section of the book deals with Shakespeare across multiple languages, such as German and French. Gingrich’s essay discusses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and its transformation into what Gingrich describes as “a particularly beautiful 19th-century Swiss-German novella called Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (A Village Romeo and Juliet)” written by Gottfried Keller. This novella resets the story of Romeo and Juliet in a small Swiss village.

“I treat the novella generally as an act of translation, and I try to see what that treatment reveals about the cultures that surround the texts,” Gingrich said. “German literature of the 19th century was extremely aggressive in adopting Shakespeare as its own, often insisting that Shakespeare was more German than English, so there’s some really interesting background to the cultural angle.”

Saenger has dedicated much of his time to this book for the past two and a half years. All the essays have been submitted, and he hopes it will be published in late 2013.

“Editing a collection is an adventure,” Saenger said. “There’s a series of hurdles to jump, but I feel good with where we are now.”

Gingrich and Coker also said it has been exciting to see the collection come together.

“I can’t express how fortunate I feel that my first publishing opportunity was facilitated by someone as thoughtful and wise as Professor Saenger,” Gingrich said. “The experience has been invaluable, and I’m certain I’ll remember it for my entire career as an academic writer and, hopefully, professor.”

Devin Corbitt

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