Part of Ferndale Reads 2016 (ft. Station Eleven)
If you find yourself saying, “Ya know…, I never really liked Shakespeare…,” then you probably never had Nicola Imbracsio as a teacher. “It hurts my heart when someone says ‘Ugh…’ to Shakespeare, because you must’ve had someone who didn’t start with the right play,” Imbracsio said.
“Why not start with ‘Titus Andronicus?’ That’s like a Quentin Tarantino-styled revenge tale with action and gore and heads-chopped off… Whereas ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Julius Caesar’ can feel so distant. And, unfortunately, that’s what gets taught (in high schools), because we think: ‘Oh this is the only time students will get to experience Shakespeare so let’s give them the “important stuff.”
Imbracsio has a PhD. in English Literature and teaches British lit at both Oakland Univ and the Univ of Michigan-Dearborn. She studied Shakespeare and early modern drama at the University of New Hampshire. She hails from Boston but has lived in Michigan for several years, currently based in Ferndale.
This Thursday, Imbracsio presents an engaging exploration of the works of William Shakespeare at the Ferndale Area District Library as part of Ferndale Reads 2016. “Is This The Promised End?” is one in a series of several programs hosted by Ferndale’s Head Reference Librarian, Darlene Hellenberg, who coordinates these annual city-wide book club itineraries focusing on one book, to be read and experienced as one community.
Imbracsio’s presentation will particularly emphasize Shakespeare’s influence upon Station Eleven, a newer work of fiction set around the Great Lakes region in the aftermath of a devastating pandemic, where traveling minstrels and nomadic thespians transfer from outpost to outpost performing plays like King Lear. Because after a virtual apocalypse, as one actor confers, “…people would want what was best about the world…”
“And if you had to pick an apocalyptic play,” Imbracsio assures, “it would have to be Lear!”
Station Eleven was written by Emily St. John Mandel and published in late 2014. It was awarded the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction writing. Ferndale Library staff began giving away free copies of Station Eleven to enthusiastic Ferndale Reads participants in mid-March. These complimentary copies were facilitated by Ferndale Reads 2016’s sponsor, the Friends of the Ferndale Library. Station Eleven is also the spotlighted book of the Michigan Humanities Council’s Great Michigan Read.
“One of my pet interests is seeing how Shakespeare pops up in pop culture and the ways that people riff on his plays. I’m don’t mean adaptations, but more the appropriations, as with Mandel with Station Eleven. I liked (Mandel’s) book because, unlike most post-apocalyptic stories, it doesn’t feel horrible. This is a feel-good end-of-the-world novel, which makes it fascinating in itself. And, I was fascinated by (the books)’s use of Lear. The mood and tone of Lear does feel as though the world is coming apart…”
From Lear to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mandel makes several connections to Shakespeare’s plays in her story. “I’m excited about this, because I want to talk about what happens with the way she inflects this novel with a Lear character. If you’re not familiar with Lear, some might already know he’s an old king who yells a lot and goes crazy. But when he brings Cordelia (his dead daughter) into his arms, it’s possibly one of the most moving and painful moments of drama ever written.” Instead, Imbracsio notes, a character appropriating Lear in Station Eleven dies on the first page and, instead, another character resembling a would-be Cordelia is allowed to progress along the narrative toward a future that promises more than doom and/or gloom.
Wherefore art thou? To be or not to be? Some of the language may be archaic or dense, but as Imbracsio puts it, analyzing Shakespeare allows for the universal beauty and poignant relatability to blossom.
“Shakespeare writes these really psychologically complex characters, and as humans, we’re just drawn to other human stories. What makes it relevant today is that even though it’s about a Danish Prince, or a Scottish King, or a Roman General, at the end of the day, they’re very flawed human beings having very human experiences and they’re all richly drawn. We’re still having those same human experiences today.”
While MacBeth seems less of a tragic hero and more of just a cold-blooded jerk, Imbracsio would shift your perspective to remind you that he, above all, is ambitious. If he were going back to school to get his Master’s and apply to better jobs, he’d be admirable…, it just happens that his ambition is attaining the throne through regicide.
Here’s the big thing, Imbracsio says: Shakespeare never intended for his plays to merely be read. He intended them to be experienced, to be performed and watched.
Imbracsio is sure to put on a show, not only because she is a self-described “theater-person” (with a Masters of Fine Arts in Directing, by the way), but because her “teaching style is very performance-driven.” Thus, Imbracsio have a keen sense for translating the universal themes and familiar motifs of Shakespeare to a modern day audience in a compelling (and even entertaining) way.
Imbracsio concluded that Shakespeare’s strongest source of appeal, along with as his preternatural ability to be “appropriated” or adapted in so many versatile ways, as with Station Eleven, comes mostly from the fact that we know so little about him. Unlike Marlowe or Chaucer, we don’t know when, exactly, Shakespeare was actually born, or what his politics or religion were, and that gives him universality. “This way, he can stay this mythic and brilliant person; we can put whatever we want on him.”
IF YOU GO:
Thursday, April 14
Ferndale Reads 2016 Presents “Is This The Promised End? Shakespeare and Station Eleven”
Starting at 7 pm
Ferndale Area District Library
222 E. Nine Mile Rd