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Laurie Maguire

In conversation with Sophia Blackwell

Dr. Laurie Maguire teaches English at Magdalen College, specialising in the period 1509-1830. She is the author of Shakespearean Suspect Texts: The ‘Bad’ Quartos and their Contexts (1996) Textual Formations and Reformations, co-edited with Thomas L. Berger (1998) and Studying Shakespeare: A Guide to the Plays (2003). Laurie Maguire was educated at the High School, Dundee, Central High School in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Westfield College, London, the Shakespeare Institute, and King’s College, London. She lives in Park Town with her husband.

I think I’m content with where I am now...

There was a period a few years ago when I had a sort of forty-year-old midlife crisis, when you think- I’d really like a job where I could get eight hours sleep, I’m exhausted, is it going to be like this forever and ever? You’re curiously control-less when you’re an academic, because term-time’s like being at boarding school. Everything’s coming out of left field. You can’t plan weekends away because you don’t know how long the essays are going to be that week, or how much work you need to do on the lecture you’re giving on Monday or what student crises there will be. I thought it would be rather nice to have a twelve-month period when things were relatively sane, but then got over that. So I am content.

Once upon a time I thought that it would be nice to be a real high-flyer with a big salary. Of course, having said that, one does flirt with doing things that are completely different, buying a strawberry farm or being a yoga teacher, but those aren’t really realistic things. Academia’s certainly dominated my personal life, and I was very, very focused on my career from the time I was a student for a number of reasons. One of them may just have been the feeling that in English literature there’s always so much more you could be reading, so you can’t just say ‘right, finished a day’s work.’ It’s not that I feel punitive or guilty about it, I genuinely do want to read the next book that I haven’t read, but I suppose that’s generally not very social of me.

The idea of ars longa, vita brevis dominated me for the first twenty years of my academic life; I came late to personal life, as it were. I decided in my twenties that personal life was a distraction; I did see people, of course, but I felt that settling down got in the way of thinking. I hadn’t been looking for someone, but when I met my husband, who’s a surgeon in Oxford, it was a bolt from the blue. Being happily married, you don’t worry about the future; you know what you’ll be doing when you’re eighty, being married.

You don’t realise until much later in life how inadvertently influenced you are by the people who teach you…

Who teaches you is essentially luck of the draw. I had an undergraduate tutor who was a textual expert and editor, a Webster specialist (Elizabeth M. Brennan). She just got me really interested in text. Now, had I been at Sussex, and been taught by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, maybe I would have become a theorist. When I’m writing academic books there’s a certain amount of self-consciousness; I’m very aware with something I’m writing right now that it won’t look up to date if there isn’t a bit of theoretical spin, so I do feel bilingual, but I speak theory very much as a learnt language, not as a fluent mother tongue.

You realise that by the time you’re twenty-something, the way you think is actually quite formed...

I certainly remember, as a teenager, being really interested in philosophy. I read a Graham Greene novel, I think it was The Burnt-Out Case, from my parents’ bookshelf and it began with a quote, which I didn’t know at the time was Descartes: Cogito ergo sum. And that blew my mind. The logic of that. I really wanted to talk about it with someone, and there was no schoolteacher or anyone I knew who was able or willing to discuss it. You look back and you see that as a road not taken, so sometimes you don’t think about who influenced you, but who wasn’t there to influence you when you really needed to be influenced.

If there had been someone who knew a little about metaphysics or philosophy, then I might have gone to Sussex and become a theoretician. I mean, I do read a lot of philosophy and theory but as I said earlier I’m very aware of theory as a second language, so I’ve always been a textual specialist. I do quite a lot of other interpretive things, but give me a Folio or a Quarto edition and I know what to do with it!

I don’t think any student’s really disappointed me…

If you think about students as people rather than as students, then obviously, like all people in life, there are some that you really would like to kidnap and take home, and others whom think you would not have gone out of your way to get to know. I feel incredibly emotionally involved with all the students I teach, and very proprietorial and nurturing. I love to see how they grow, and if the ones who aren’t doing great work don’t come on that’s completely dramatically fascinating, it might be academically infuriating but their personal problems or their personality problems are actually just really interesting in terms of their human value, so I don’t actually have any student who’s disappointed me in other than an academic way. You still find poor students utterly endearing- in the way that a really mischievous five-year-old or a very badly behaved toddler is endearing- as a person they’re completely fascinating and you love them to bits, even though their work and their attitude is driving you mad. I think the important thing is to be really aware of the student as an individual. One student will benefit from a good finger-wagging pull-your-socks-up session, whereas others need the ‘we’re in this together, I know you’re fragile,’ attitude. I think probably most of us are fragile. I haven’t ever had to use the finger-wagging approach. Partly because I just would feel so guilty about it. I love watching their minds at work; I’ve got a graduate student at the moment who’s just a complete joy, it’s like watching Fred Astaire dance, and you’re watching the dance steps and you think you want to try and emulate those movements, wondering, how did they do that? Students finding a way into something…I love watching that.

I was taken to the theatre quite late in life…

My parents moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne when I was sixteen. It was a wonderfully grown-up experience for me, as I came to England from Scotland before university, and in the sixth form there were all these sophisticated English girls who were treated like adults, whereas the school system I grew up with in Scotland was Colditz-like, it was very punitive.

In 1976, the RSC came to town, and I was just gobsmacked. Shakespeare had been presented to me in school from age twelve as a kind of translation exercise, but in performance it was just so contemporary, and so funny, and so accessible. The first plays I saw were Judi Dench and Donald Sinden in a series, Much Ado about Nothing, and The Comedy of Errors. Those were the two that I particularly remember from that season. They did various other history plays as well, but those were the two, because all that witty banter stuff on the page was side-splittingly funny at the Theatre Royal.

Oh, and the other one was As You Like It in 1977. I remember this vividly, and I use this as an example, actually, in my lectures. I saw the matinee of it, and when I came out of the Theatre Royal at five o’clock I was completely astonished that there were cars on the road. I just thought, ‘Hang on; I want to be in the Forest of Arden, I want to go back into that pastoral idyll.’ I got such a strong sense of what theatre can do- pull you into another world- and I went into a Laura Ashley shop which was open till five-thirty, because that was the closest I could come to prolonging the pastoral experience. You know, it was the seventies, there were all those flowery frocks…and I just couldn’t get on the bus, couldn’t go home. I wanted to stay in Arden. It was astonishing. And so, as a spectator, I was just hooked.

My MA at the Shakespeare Institute was quite practical. You had to work with the RSC, and Russell Jackson, my tutor, who’s now the Director of the Shakespeare Institute, was just hugely important in teaching me how to read plays as drama, to read them as a director would read them, or as an actor. I’ve never acted or directed- well, I’ve directed excerpts of productions for the students, for Christmas entertainments, I’ve helped people direct, I’m full of suggestions for here, there and everywhere, completely eclectically, randomly. I could never have the responsibility for the concept of a production from start to finish and that’s a source of great regret to me, because it would be lovely to be able to transform those pages into the kind of material I’ve really enjoyed on the stage.

The production I’ve enjoyed most would have to be anything directed by Trevor Nunn, particularly in the seventies or eighties, in his heyday at the RSC. I could give you chapter and verse of every production, but my favourite is probably his All’s Well that Ends Well in 1981, or in 1992 he did an amazing Measure for Measure at The Other Place in Stratford. Nunn presents a Shakespeare story with perfect clarity In Measure for Measure there’s a whole scene where Lucio is talking to the Duke in disguise and saying all these dreadful things about the Duke, and they’re in a waiting room of the prison and pressing a bell, waiting for attention, and Nunn makes it exactly the kind of gossipy conversation you might have with someone in a bus queue. There’s another prison scene at night when they’re waiting for the reprieve for Claudio, and it’s obviously eleven o’ clock, and these big metal mugs of tea are handed round and the Provost of the prison is about to drink his, and then he gives it to Claudio. It’s a wonderful moment of compassion, you feel that everyone realises that Claudio’s in an unfair predicament except Angelo. Just little details like that.

There was a wonderful moment with Angelo and Isabella- Claire Skinner played Isabella, she was this really petite strawberry blonde, very slim with a very tightly waisted black dress, and she was so naïve, completely impervious to the erotic potential of her…kinetic energy. She flew across the stage at one point, when she was saying to Angelo, ‘Go to your bosom,/ Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know/That’s like my brother’s fault,’ and she just mimed the action- she went over to him, and she put her head on his chest, and knocked on his heart. And you could see he was completely aghast by the proximity of a woman, he’d never had a female that close to him, but also quite entranced by the fragrance of her, the tactility of her, and she was oblivious to that- and that was the dangerous moment.

If I could play a Shakespearean role, it wouldn’t be any of the obvious ones, Rosalind or whatever. Imogen, in Cymbeline, I’d love a go at, because she’s a female heroine in boy’s clothes who says, ‘I really don’t want to wear boy’s clothes,’ and it’s completely different from the normal mould. Also, she’s just completely tenacious, she carries on loving Posthumus for no other reason than that she’s loyal and loves Posthumus, and just hangs in there. I find her very interesting.

I have this nightmare, it’s my one recurring nightmare in life, and in it a genie gives me the opportunity to meet Shakespeare or Marlowe and I can’t decide which. And the reason why it’s such a nightmare is that there’s a lot of stuff about Marlowe that I’d really like to know about, his Secret Service dealings, his dealings on the continent, the forgery in Flushing, his last moments…all the political ins and outs. But I don’t think it would tell me much more about his personality- now, with Shakespeare, it’s the other way around. We know quite a lot about Shakespeare, he’s very well documented in comparison to other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. But I have no sense of the personality of the man at all. There’s a really shadowy persona behind those plays, that’s why the left and the right can both claim Shakespeare as their own- ‘Shakespeare was a Tory,’ ‘Shakespeare was a socialist.’ So what I’d like to know about Shakespeare is what he really thought about things, what his personality was…and that’s not going to happen.

I was born in Toronto, Ontario, in Canada, but that was by a complete accident of timing...

I’m Scottish, and I was brought up in Scotland, but on my passport it says my place of birth is Canada. I did spend the first three years of my life there, which is why I ended up with this odd hybrid accent. That’s really dogged me all my life, being identified with a place that’s actually not where I’m from; I found it ontologically very weird indeed. My mother’s from Glasgow and my father’s from Dundee, and I was in Dundee virtually all my life until I went to university. So I went from Scotland to England and it seemed very adventurous to go to a foreign country to go to university, my mother’s family’s actually from the Isle of Skye, but they moved to Glasgow when she was a child. In fact one of my great grandmothers never learnt to speak English, and so I feel very, very Scottish despite all appearances to the contrary.

In the Renaissance, you do all this work about the Other, and the Other is female or skin colour- you know, it’s Othello, it’s Aaron the Moor- and nobody’s done any work, really, on language in the sense of acoustics, because I feel Other. I mean, I might be white and middle class and a professional, but I feel very Other living in England as soon as I open my mouth.

I lived abroad for twelve years before I came to Oxford, in Canada...

I had gone there as a post-doc because I had a one-year fellowship, so I thought I’d go and see this country I’d been identified with all my life. Then I got a job there and spent eleven more years there after that, so when I came back to England I had to think very carefully about where I wanted to live in Britain and why. I hadn’t actually thought about leaving Canada, but I was offered jobs in the States and so I started to think about where I was going to move. Where I’d like to live in England is very tied up with where I’d like to work, and there’s places that if, one just had money going to the bank account, one would happily live.

But in terms of coming back to work in Britain, there were only three places I was really interested in working, Oxford, Cambridge and London University, as they’ve got really good English facilities, and also for the theatre work I’m interested in, they’re good centres. I’d never lived in Oxford before, actually, and I really have fallen in love with Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. If I had to live somewhere that was completely independent of earning a living, Edinburgh would be a really major interest. I was at a conference there a few years ago; it felt like being in Amsterdam, plus it’s got all that beautiful Georgian architecture. When I worked in Canada I kept my flat in London; five months every summer you were completely free, so I came back every summer. I think North America’s a fantastically enabling place to live; everything works. The utilities work, the Gas Board’s pleasant and life’s just really easy, but architecturally it’s not very exciting, historically it’s very different and culturally it doesn’t have the resources. I’d be very interested in a life where one could live half the year in one place and half the year in another.

It’s kind of odd living in a city that’s schizophrenic in its clientele…

Routines change, so that there are major traffic problems at certain times of the year and not at the others. One thing I don’t like about Oxford, which is what everyone doesn’t like, is the Byzantine traffic arrangement system. I feel that the combustion engine’s really outlived its usefulness if you live in Oxford.

I love the cultural facilities, particularly free ones, the fact that there’s just always so many interesting lectures and gallery talks and book talks, because the city seems to have such a concentrated population of artistic, literary people. I’m a complete devotee of self-improvement through entertainment. I love that. So what I like about Oxford is that there’s so much one can use and really feel like you’re getting a cultural fix just on the doorstep from where you live. One thing about Oxford University is there’s a surprising lack of academic community because we’re all separated by colleges.

I’ve never commuted. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always lived right in the centre, and even when I lived in London I had a tiny flat but it was right in the centre and I figured that was better than a big place in East Finchley. I feel that it’s important to use a city’s facilities; take advantage. And sometimes that can just be public spaces- I love the fact that in the summer the University Parks are full of people using it as a garden, just behaving really nicely, really well.

I have pursued academia consistently but not by design, it just sort of happened…

…I am a great believer in the fact that the really major decisions in life you don’t make, they just happen. I thought that I might want to work in theatre, and in the last year of my PhD I was a research assistant to a director, and that seemed to me to be a route that would be quite satisfying permanently, because it’s doing what I do now and telling it to actors and directors. It’s a precarious life, though, because you’re dependent on someone else having a job. I fell into academic life because I love reading books so much that it was logical to want to do an MA after a BA, so I thought, ‘Fine, I’ll get a scholarship to do this.’ After I finished my MA I never thought I’d be an academic, because it seemed presumptuous to think I could know and teach people things. It’s a wonderful sort of utopian dream but I don’t think you actually go through your studies thinking, ‘I will be the one who can do more than all my clever peers.’

After my MA I was thinking about advertising and publishing, the usual sort of English Literature type careers. I was a fiendish competition enterer, because I liked to win prizes through making up slogans, and I thought that would give me a little portfolio of advertising things so I could go and work at Saatchi and Saatchi. Then I got a scholarship to do a PhD, so I thought, ‘Fantastic, I’ve got another three years before I’m unemployed.’ Then I got a post-doc year, the Leverhulme Fellowship, went to Toronto, and then I applied for jobs in Canada and America, not planning to stay there but I thought it would be really good job practice, because that was the time when Mrs Thatcher had taken all jobs away, particularly from universities and the theatre- those were the areas I wanted to work in, so I felt a bit personally victimised! I thought it would be useful to apply for jobs in North America to get interview practice, so when there was only one job that came up in England, I thought I might have a better chance. It never occurred to me that I would actually get a job, so when I was offered a job, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, now what shall I do?’ The Canadian job I was offered had this incredibly congenial academic year from September to April, and because it was such an inexpensive place to live and I didn’t need to sell anything in London to take up this job in Canada, I thought, ‘It’s fine, I’ve got nothing to lose if it’s not the new Jerusalem, I can retreat to Bloomsbury and I haven’t lost anything.’ Then you realise you’re not really qualified to do anything else, and that’s what you do. I’ve pursued academia in the sense that I haven’t really done much else, but not in the sense that that’s actually what I want to do and nothing else.

English Literature was a sort of gentleman’s conversational thing at the start of the twentieth century. In a way there might be said to be a bit of turf protection about the rise of recent critical schools. It makes English Literature like other subjects, you need a very specialised vocabulary and approach, you can’t just do it. I think it’s right, you can’t just do English literature- I think a real problem is that what people think that what you do for a living is what they read in the Sunday newspapers- you sit around with Jane Eyre on your knee and you have a personal reaction. But you’re not, and particularly if you’re working in the Renaissance, you’re reading philosophy books, theology books, history of mathematics and science systems and heaven knows what. So I think it’s good that we have professionalised what we do, in the way that lots of people play football, but not everyone’s David Beckham; there’s a recreational level and a professional level.

But the flipside of that, and particularly for someone like me who works in drama, is that lots of people who aren’t professionals go to see Shakespeare plays and yet they can’t read what we write about Shakespeare plays because we have made our interpretive work inaccessible. My new book, Studying Shakesspeare, is aimed at undergraduates, and it’s also designed to be read by the playgoer who just wants a more informed way to approach plays. I was really trying to recuperate character criticism, which is completely outmoded with theory, and say that there must be a more nuanced way of dealing with character and situation, because that’s how audiences go into plays, whether it’s TV drama or Shakespeare at the National. You do think, ‘Gosh, what if I were in Isabella’s situation and Angelo propositioned me?’

My PhD supervisor used to say that my thesis was just the work of a frustrated novelist…

I’ve always liked writing, and I do feel very much that writing your ideas up is the reward you get for having done the hard work of thinking, so I do enjoy trying to be persuasive and accessible. In an academic book, you just try to make it as good as you possibly can make it, but with a general book it was harder, much more difficult. I don’t think I’ll ever write one like that again because all the time I was thinking, ‘What do people know, what do they not know, what would they really like to know, will they understand it, in what way am I making assumptions about their background knowledge?’

When I first went to North America, university there seemed a bit more like a finishing school…

There’s a much wider ‘middle of the road,’ who are there just to learn to be good citizens, and they chose English because they like it but they’re not the kind of people who you would ever think of as being English academics, so you have to reach them in quite a different way. I spent a lot of time just getting genned up on popular culture to think of analogues for what I was teaching. Some of it was quite social- I read articles on teenage suicide and Romeo and Juliet, once compared The Simpsons to Troilus and Cressida; I’d only seen one episode of The Simpsons, but I knew it was a big cultural business! I think that it is important to woo students by making them feel that what you are doing is not a thing apart from their own existence, because it isn’t. I live and breathe English literature, but not as an academic, like feminism is something one does in one’s relations with human beings as well as in one’s written work, and I want English literature to be that way.

I’ve been to a lot of bad lectures and you start to think about it once you teach yourself, because you realise what a luxury it is to be taught and how that hour can be a really wasted hour. Some of it, I think, is very commonsensical, social, the eye contact, the moving around, the conversational nature of things, so the students really feel you’re talking to them. You cannot stand there and read out a typescript and deliver a monologue. That’s not a lecture. Or maybe that is a lecture, but it’s not teaching. It’s also no fun for me if I feel that things are completely anonymous. I can’t stand in front of a lot of people without feeling like I have a sense of their reactions. What makes a good lecturer is interaction, you don’t have to be walking up and down the aisles but you do have to be very involved with your audience.

I don’t have children and I’m forty-four, so the only way I could have them now is by adopting...

I’ve never actually thought about having children, but I’ve got a husband who does, so about four years ago we thought, ‘Fine, let’s have kids,’ but it didn’t happen. I’m not very good at multi-tasking, so it’s always been difficult for me to see how I could focus adequately on both my academic job and a domestic or maternal job. When you work in Oxford your job isn’t as quantifiable as it is in a departmental or modular system.

Have I ever encountered prejudice as a female academic? Not in the academy, not personally, not internationally. I have observed bad treatment of other females; ones with children, so I think the distinction is not between men and women in the academy, but between those who’ve got children and those who don’t. I personally haven’t experienced any prejudice, but I still sometimes see things that make me think, ‘What century am I in?’ Perhaps the fact that I feel my life would have been more professionally difficult if I’d had children is one of the reasons I’ve got to forty-four and haven’t had any.

I tend to read books about antiques, House and Garden, Private Eye, things with pictures in them…

I’ve been too frustrated by being in the middle of a novel when term gets particularly busy and not getting to finish the novel. I keep books of poetry everywhere, in the bathroom and the hallway, because poetry comes in really nice short units.  I don’t know how to read poetry; it’s an incredible Achilles heel of mine. I read novels all my childhood, I’m at home with narrative so that’s why I can handle drama, you can always get into something deeper through the story. I’m okay with narrative poetry like The Faerie Queene, but when you’ve got a book of poetry you can’t read the book from start to finish like a novel, I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. That’s one of the reasons why I love Poems on the Underground; you can sit from the Elephant and Castle or wherever and read the same poem ten times. The poem that most moved me recently was one by Bernard O’Donoghue, The Day I Outlived my Father. A friend sent that to me two years ago when my father died; it is such a strange experience to outlive your father…

In my forties, I’ve slowed down a bit…

If you want to be in the business of thinking and having ideas, it’s not a bad idea to take the evening off, or do some weeding in the garden in the afternoon. I used to do sport in order to work more efficiently afterwards; now I do it to relax. I feel a bit more balanced- I think I’m a small fish in a big pond, but I’m not the smallest fish and that’s fine with me. I’m not aiming so much to zoom up a ladder as to still be on it in forty years time. I still wish I was more knowledgeable about philosophy and theology. I’m a real sucker for beginner’s guides. I read them all the time.

Whenever I’m in a foreign city, there are always three places I have to search out: a library, because they’re tranquil and international, a swimming pool, because I love being immersed in water, and a Catholic church. I’m not a Catholic, but a few years ago I nearly became one. The great thing about Catholic churches is no matter where you are, there’s always a service going on whenever you show up.