Shakespeare’s Enduring Legacy (or The Brilliant Lisa Jardine)

February 2, 2014 § 1 Comment

The Frank Kermode Memorial Lecture, the Purcell Room, 30th January, 2014, Professor Lisa Jardine


I should say upfront that I am a huge fan of Professor Jardine. If there were mugs or Jardine T-towels, I’d have them. If you are not familiar with the brilliant Lisa Jardine CBE, well, I suggest you get yourself familiarised. Here are some things she has done. 1. She read mathematics at Cambridge before, two years into that course, switching to English. 2. She’s written a heap of books, from Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983) to The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London (2003). 3. Since 2008 she has served as Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. 4. She is now  Professor of Renaissance Studies at UCL. 5. She’s pretty liberal and I believe sent her children to state schools in London.

I think she’s spiffing for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, she’s had breast cancer so, of course, I find that somewhat encouraging (she’s 69, still doing tons of great stuff, etc). Secondly, I credit her with preventing me from bombing out of Cambridge almost 30 years ago. To cut a very tedious story short, girl from huge, not very good comprehensive school + English Literature at Cambridge = recipe for disaster. Entering my third year, I decided to take a course on “The Novel” and was allocated yet another male supervisor with little interest in teaching, someone who had never been overly pleased that women had been admitted to my college in the first place, let alone girls from not very good state schools. At the time, Lisa Jardine was at Jesus College, nothing at all to do with me, but already an inspiring lecturer. In desperation, I knocked on her door and poured out my panic at having to study once again with said misogynist. She was lovely, found me someone to work with, the equally lovely Julia Swindells. It doesn’t sound much, but without a doubt that intervention got me through Cambridge.

Enough about all that. On Thursday, Professor Jardine delivered the Frank Kermode Memorial Lecture on Shakespeare’s Enduring Legacy. As suggested above, although I read English at Cambridge, it was all a huge error. Despite that, I went to hear Professor Jardine and, because she is so marvellous, I couldn’t help but learn a few things. Here they are (and with the usual apologies to anyone who really knows about this stuff).

1. The phrase “dumping in the pathetic” from Frank Kermode. Not sure what it means, though.

2. Shakepeare’s plays “wait patiently for each new interpretation.” Frank Kermode believed that “our questions, our seasonal truths, are not those of an earlier generation.” Being open to interpretation but being reticent about final meaning makes a work a classic.

3. Frank Kermode transformed Shakespearian criticism by giving us an outward rather than an inward interpretation. The Romantics, for example, put the poet at the heart of everything – the poet was always right. Kermode (and Professor Jardine) said that the spirit of the writer has to be considered along with the social, cultural, anthropological and historical questions of the time.

4. An example (and stick with me here). In the 17th Century, it was legal to beat your wife to death in your house, but not to do so in public. It was all about what happened in public. Church court documents record numerous cases of women, accused of adultery or lewd behaviour, coming to court to clear their names. It was vital to do this in public. Move to Othello, Act 4, Scene 2, when Desdemona is accused by Othello of adultery. She doesn’t actually deny it (perhaps because she can’t bring herself to use those words) and because she refuses to have the charge scrubbed from the public record, she is automatically guilty, or, as Professor Jardine put it, “the verbal has been consecrated as an event.” Othello doesn’t ever doubt her guilt again so that he kills her not though jealousy, but because, in his eyes, she had definitely committed adultery. But we might not read the play like this if we didn’t have the knowledge gained through examination of contemporary church court records.

5. Any scene from the period where a woman is in the same room as a bed is bad news for said lady’s reputation – Gertrude, in Hamlet, dies in her bed, and Desdemona is killed by Othello in her bed.


There was lots more, and some pretty clever questions. A little out of my depth. Never mind. A much better thing to do than worry about that would be to listen to Professor Jardine talking about the founding of the Royal Society  or the history of cryptography both on In Our Time, or follow her on twitter @profLisaJardine.

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