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INTERVIEW: Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith #ArtistInRetreat

Emma Smith
Emma Smith

Emma Smith’s highly acclaimed Sunday Times bestselling book This is Shakespeare has just come out in paperback. Here the Oxford academic, praised for making the playwright accessible, shares what she is doing in lockdown.

Tell us about what you do, and how you got started.I teach and research Renaissance literature, especially Shakespeare, at the University of Oxford. I followed a pretty conventional academic path to get there, and I’ve been very fortunate: I did my doctorate on Elizabethan drama, and got a wonderful job at Hertford College, with great students and colleagues. I try not to be an ivory-tower sort of academic, and I enjoy working with theatre companies and other arts organisations in rethinking Shakespeare for new audiences.

Where are you spending the lockdown, and who are you with?I’m with my partner Elizabeth in our house in south Oxford – with our elderly dog, whom we are coaxing to survive through lockdown; it would just be too much if she were to expire now. We’re lucky to have a little bit of garden – now rather tidier than it’s been for years – and a park close by.

How are you staying connected with the outside world?Microsoft Teams for work meetings, Zoom for more informal or relaxed things. It’s actually been enjoyable to schedule time to chat with friends and family, and to acknowledge how important they are. I’ve bought up a whole load of stamps (did you know you can buy previous years’ Christmas stamps at a discount online? Amazing!) And am writing cards and posting them at the box on the corner.

Are you managing to do any kind of work?I’m finding it easier to do small tasks which have an immediate pay-off – I can’t knuckle down to the longer-frame work of reading and research. It’ll be good when the students come back, virtually at least, since we’ll have no face-to-face teaching, for the summer term. Some of the literary festival events planned for the spring have gone online, so I’ve been recording videos of myself – I’m always somehow looking shiftily off to the side. I’ve also done some of those jobs you never get round to doing, painting over damp-proof course replastering, in my case.

What are the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown?I’m not an extrovert and I like being at home, and many of the things I enjoy are domestic. So I’m well-placed and lucky. It’s really clear that lockdown is much much easier if you have a comfortable base, and if you are free from other worries. I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish – this is a really awful situation in so many ways and for so many people – but I am counting my blessings. I had cancer treatment in the autumn which was able to be completed before this; I have a job in an institution that will weather this difficult period; it is spring and we planted tulips in the dark days. I miss my daily flat white at Columbia in Oxford’s Covered Market, I miss being able to hug friends. Same for all of us, I guess.

Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the isolation?Although there’s plenty of time and there’s no excuse for not cracking through a huge box set, I’m finding my appetite for new things is limited. I’m preferring the comfort of what I know well. Handel is always my go-to when things are tough, so we’re listening to lots of Ariodante – and the signature tune for Friday evenings, the Swedish jazz musician Jan Johansson, is with us all the way. I’ve read some brilliant crime fiction, including Andrew Taylor’s The Last Protector and Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders, and am re-reading some Agatha Christie I haven’t read since adolescence for a radio programme for the 100th anniversary of Poirot. I’m rewatching Star Wars although I’m still not sure about the renumbering of the classic films. Maybe as lockdown continues I’ll have more stamina for new cultural experiences – I feel a bit shamefaced not to be taking advantage yet of everything that’s been made available.

Any other tips for not going stir crazy?Trying to take mindful pleasure in small things – the bees out in this sunny weather, a cold glass of wine, the sound of the pigeons walking over the roof when I’m working in the attic. Also keeping in touch with other people; turning off social media and news, and listening to the headlines at 6pm or 10pm, rather than to all the commentary. I’ve been doing the beginner’s running app Couch to 5k, which I’ve found gives a structure to the permitted daily exercise and it is designed to help you feel like you’re making progress.

What will be the first thing you do when self-isolation is lifted?I will take gifts to the market traders who have scaled up to provide online deliveries in the crisis, and thank them for their work. I will want to touch base with all sorts of people; this has reminded me how human my world is, and how important it is that I see people I know.

What help would you like to see being given to the arts community?This is such a hard time for the arts. I do hope that some of the government measures can help individuals, and that ACE and other bodies can take some of the strain for institutions. But there’s no doubt that wonderful work will not now be done, and that for some organisations it won’t be possible to reopen. I hope that the interest in the arts – for example, a poem as part of the Today programme, or reading sonnets on Twitter, or watching live broadcasts from the Met or the National or the RSC – can remind all of us that the arts are what makes us human. While we look for a vaccine and applaud our health workers, we need also to acknowledge, and support, those activities that give those saved lives meaning and pleasure.

What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the coronavirus catastrophe?To be more local in our outlook and our expectations. I’ve found it so moving standing on the doorstep clapping the NHS, in the company of my neighbours.

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