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Shakespeare and deafness: a reflection

As part of her internship at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Grace Lester set out to conduct a research project into an area close to her heart

Grace Lester

Over the last several months of 2018 I had the opportunity to work as an intern in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Development department. My time involved a weekly research day, which was self-generated, allowing me to examine any aspect of Shakespeare and explore my curiosity without limitation. 

I have been experiencing chronic hearing loss for the last several years, and with it my interest in the d/Deaf community has grown. In hopes of pursuing this interest, and also engaging with Shakespeare, I sought to learn about the interactions of the works, life, and times of Shakespeare and the d/Deaf. You can read more about a few of my findings in my previous blog post Hearing Shakespeare’s Women.

My initial approach was to discover ways that Shakespeare’s implicit attitudes towards silence and deafness may have perpetuated mainstream public sentiment to people with hearing loss. Having never conducted research before, the idea of a three month project was both daunting and exhilarating - I didn’t know where to begin among over a million museum, library and archive items cared for by the Trust when I would have happily looked through all of it, given the time. To become more familiar with Shakespeare’s works, I began watching performance recordings and movie adaptations of the plays, many of them from the Royal Shakespeare Company. I quickly found that many of these resources are not subtitled or closed captioned and inquired as to whether this feature would be possible to develop. I felt that it would be relevant for not only the d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing, but also researchers, those who speak English as a foreign language, or anyone seeking a bit of textual support as they adjust to the language of Shakespeare.

James Ranahan and Grace Lester
Collections archivist Jim Ranahan and former intern Grace Lester

This directed me to Jim Ranahan, who has opened many doors to me throughout this experience. He informed me that although this feature had never been requested, he was willing to pursue the possibility with me. As a student on the brink of my exposure to the professional world, it was so empowering to have Jim stand behind my ideas, and encourage me to develop them. He offered an opportunity to redirect my project so that my work could have an impact on the Reading Room and Archives, diversifying the audience by implementing services and resources that would be more inclusive. I also had the opportunity to meet with Emma Birks, who leads access at the Trust, and our conversations caused me to shift my focus from the historical roots of connection between Shakespeare and the d/Deaf, to a contemporary understanding of the d/Deaf and how services at the Trust could better engage this audience. I sought first an understanding of the development of d/Deaf culture and identity, as well as the world of theatre as experienced by the d/Deaf, and the modern use of Shakespeare’s works in British Sign Language (BSL) or other sign languages.

I cannot understate the wealth and value of the information which I found in pursuing this course. d/Deaf culture is complex and rich, and embraces individuals with any range of hearing loss. The Development of Deaf Identity: An Ethnographic Study, introduced me to the cultural identity of many individuals transitioning from a childhood in the hearing community to a life of hearing loss - bicultural DeaF identity, which reconciles and enjoys exposure to the hearing community in which they were raised, and identify with Deaf pride, and the belief that Deafness is not a disability. They describe DeaFness as ‘to be and not to be’, how perfectly suited to the context of a Shakespearean researcher! 

Grace Lester at Mary Ardens
Grace Lester at Mary Ardens farm

The next months brought me to correspond with representatives of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the British Deaf Association, and the National Deaf Children’s Association. I was able to experience my first time at captioned theatre performance, and see Charlotte Arrowsmith, the first Deaf actress in the Royal Shakespeare Company, perform as Cassandra in Troilus and Cressida. Perspectives shared by Paula Garfield, artistic director at d/Deaf-led theatre company Deafinitely Theatre, brought the major flaws of accessibility for the d/Deaf in theatre to my attention. Her inspired work, along with many others, has taken vital steps forward in making Shakespeare relatable and relevant to d/Deaf people by translating and performing in BSL. This introduction to the work and desires of the contemporary British d/Deaf community helped set in motion the location and addition of the first sign language resource in the Collection, Twelfth Night in American Sign Language (ASL), as acquired by Mareike Doleschal, who mentored me as I became familiar with the archives and resources available at the Trust.

My time as a researcher at the Trust allowed me to deepen respect for the genius of Shakespeare and the breadth in ways he can be approached. I grew personally as I discovered how to ask questions and find answers, through reaching out to others and the cultural, emotional and intellectual value they add to society simply by sharing their stories and ideas. I have learned new ways of engaging with the world around me and been inspired by the dynamic creativity that the d/Deaf community engages with Shakespeare. I am humbled by the receptiveness of the Trust and its patrons as I have presented my own ideas and questions to them. There is an authentic desire, which is demonstrated continually, to grow in sharing with and reaching wider audiences. While the project continues without me as I have returned to my studies at an American university, I carry the inspiration of social change and human connection, and look forward to continued interactions between the works of Shakespeare and the d/Deaf. 

Grace Lester
Grace Lester outside Trinity school

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