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In notes written to revise his 1965 book Rabelais and His World, Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin displays an engagement with theatre and Shakespeare in particular that is unprecedented elsewhere in his work. Usually Bakhtin holds Shakespeare up as a touchstone for literary genius, but goes no further in his analysis. The revision notes, however, show Bakhtin close reading several of the major tragedies, including King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello, and discussing the differences between the early modern stage and dramatic practice contemporary to him.
This lecture will explore Bakhtin’s concept of cosmic topography, wherein every gesture made by an actor on stage is situated within a cosmicised framework encompassing heaven, hell, and the earth in between. This concept ‘places’ the performer onstage, making all action that takes place meaningful within a universal grand scheme.
The lecture will begin by situating the Rabelais revision notes in Bakhtin’s critical canon, and situating Bakhtin within the canon of Shakespeare criticism. It will then discuss theatrical practice through time via cosmic topography, with a focus on changes in architecture and audience experience in the early modern theatre and the nineteenth/twentieth century auditorium that was familiar to Bakhtin.
It will close by conducting some close-reading of the tragedies mentioned in the notes, looking at topographical imagery, and evaluating Bakhtin’s usefulness to us as critics of Shakespeare now.
The lecture will aim to make Bakhtin’s theoretical approach accessible, and make a case for his worth as a significant twentieth-century voice on Shakespeare, as well as a critic of drama which up until now has been a genre much neglected by Bakhtinian scholars.