Making Literature Come to Life
BNC’s Simon Palfrey, Professor of English Literature, on his imaginative reinvention of literary criticism
Interview by Olivia Gordon, Oxford Today
Shakespeare has been at the centre of Simon Palfrey’s career. Having grown up in Hobart, Tasmania, ‘wanderlust’ led him, through a Rhodes scholarship, to a doctorate at Oxford on Shakespeare’s late phase. After teaching at Liverpool University, he returned to Oxford in 2006 as a Professor of English Literature. Having written critical books on ways of thinking about Shakespeare and researched the original Shakespearean performance texts, Palfrey’s attention has turned in recent years more to ‘philosophical’ approaches to Shakespeare.
‘I’ve been thinking about how literary criticism might become more imaginative and adventurous, if it’s to speak to the imagination and adventure of these plays,’ he tells me over tea in his airy book-lined college study. ‘One of the problems with literary criticism,’ he feels, ‘is the idea that as a critic you’ve got to assert authority and “truths” – while the nature of literary experience is often experiential, fugitive, imaginative.’
Prof. Palfrey is keen to find a way to write about literature which ‘honours’ that ‘existential experimentalism’ of literature, to break down boundaries – indeed, ‘to explode the category of reading’ as he puts it. What might this involve? To take one of his books, Poor Tom: Living King Lear, as an example, Palfrey interwove thinking about King Lear with philosophical and theological essays, looking at the play ‘as a constellation of possibilities’. Meanwhile in his 2016 novel Macbeth, Macbeth, co-authored with Ewan Ferney, Chair of the Shakespeare Institute, he explored what it might be like to be Macbeth – something every actor who plays this murderous character naturally does, as does anyone watching in the audience. But for critics, trying to understand the character of Macbeth has somehow been ‘illicit’ – empathy with Macbeth is ‘something conventional scholarship doesn’t try to do’. In this case, a fictional novel set when Shakespeare’s drama ends was Palfrey’s approach to understanding the play, rather than straight literary criticism. The novel was described by Slavoj Zizek as ‘as close as one can come to a quantum physics literary criticism’.
In Palfrey’s life, there is no distinction between his creative and academic work. He thrives on interdisciplinary creative projects and a TORCH fellowship in 2015 has helped him see these through. Most recently, he has been working on another collaboration, Demons Land, a response to Edmund Spenser’s allegorical Elizabethan epic The Faerie Queene. ‘I tried to imagine what it would be like if you tried to build a world in the image of a poem, to live in an artificial world of endlessly repeating stanzas or to be an allegorical character embodying virtue – it could be a dreamy thing or a terrifying tyrannical thing,’ he says. ‘We imagined a man on an island called Demons Land, experimenting to make the play come true.’ The project started as a play devised with school children and has since turned into a film (with parts played by some of Prof. Palfrey’s undergraduates). The film forms the centerpiece of a travelling, constantly evolving, exhibition telling the ‘history’ of Demons Land with paintings and music by Oxford artists and composers. ‘It’s absolutely a work of scholarship,’ Palfrey says – ‘just transformed and applied.’
What he loves about Renaissance literature is that it was an exploratory period of ‘enormous change and restlessness’. One way to grasp this is by studying the English language and literature of the time – it was an era of tremendous growth of vocabulary, and grammatical and syntactical fluidity. ‘These things weren’t yet crystallised and that led to a lot of invention’, Prof. Palfrey says. ‘The surface of the writing of Milton or Shakespeare was trembling with all these possibilities.’ For example, when Macbeth says ‘It hath cowed my better part of man,’ this was the first coinage of the word ‘cowed’ and the meaning of being afraid arises from the context of the play. Shakespeare takes a very ordinary noun and turns it into a verb – but also, cowed connotes the milk of human kindness, which the un-maternal Lady Macbeth says Macbeth has too much of. Finally, cowed leads into Macduff’s response: ‘Then yield thee, coward’. Such ‘multiplicities’ of meaning intrigue Prof. Palfrey, as does the fact that a play invites by its very nature a different performance on every occasion.
Prof. Palfrey is also interested in, and writing on, the Romantic poets, and 17th century philosophers like Leibniz and Spinoza. He lives in Oxford with his family and when not at home, his university life keeps him incredibly busy. On top of his teaching, he is the college’s fellow with responsibility for the library and archive. ‘It’s nice to be involved in the heart of what Oxford’s all about – reading, thinking, education and study,’ he says. ‘The English faculty at Oxford is the biggest in Britain, while the college is familial – it’s a good mixture. People aren’t looking over your shoulder at Oxford telling you what to do and I think I’ve made the most of that - Oxford gives you space to be what you want to be.’