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Miriam Gilbert
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MIRIAM GILBERT Professor’s love for the language and ideas of Shakespeare stems from early immersion in theatre in the Bard’s homeland.

Miriam Gilbert discovered the world of William Shakespeare while studying on the soil of the famous playwright’s homeland.

Gilbert, a native of Cincinnati, successfully applied to Brandeis University in Boston during her senior year of high school, but she deferred enrollment in order to pursue a year’s study in the United Kingdom. She enrolled at the University of Manchester, where her father taught as a visiting professor for the engineering college.

“It was the most important year of my life,” says Gilbert, a Shakespeare scholar and University of Iowa professor of English for 40 years. “They had no idea what to do with me, this 17-year-old kid.”

Left to decide which classes she would take, she picked what she thought she would take if she were a first-year student at Brandeis. An advanced yearlong course in Shakespeare seemed a perfect complement to her involvement in stage management and design with a university theatre group.

Gilbert soon discovered a love for the language and ideas of Shakespeare as well as the power of theatre itself. “That early immersion in theatre was crucial,” she says. “I probably attended more than 30 professional and University plays that year.”

Gilbert remained involved with theatre after returning to the United States, finishing her undergraduate degree at Brandeis before moving on to Indiana University for graduate school.

Iowa was looking for a Shakespearian when she hit the job market in 1968. “But the real attraction turned out to be an undergraduate class called The English Semester, an immersion course in literature worth 12 combined credits,” Gilbert recalls. “I was impressed with anyplace that was willing to put this much energy into undergraduate teaching.”

Because The English Semester required the effort of three professors at once, she was exposed to a variety of teaching methods. The addition of a playacting component to the course drew upon Gilbert’s theatre experience, and she took on the role of managing the acting groups.

“My first semester introduced me to the notion of using performance in the classroom,” Gilbert says. “That first year at Iowa gave me everything I could have hoped for.”

Gilbert’s influence on her students was noticeable. Groups of acting students were haunting the halls of the English-Philosophy Building, practicing and performing their plays at all hours. “The greatest compliment I’ve received came from a former UI graduate student,” Gilbert says. “She said, ‘Miriam, I used to be able to come to the English-Philosophy Building at night and find any number of places to study—that place is crazy now.’

“You own a play when you put the work in,” she adds. “The acting groups make you do that.”

After a successful run, The English Semester came to an end, but by then Gilbert and other faculty had implemented these teaching methods and strategies for smaller courses.

In 1980 her work brought her back to Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born and lived. After sitting in as an observer of Royal Shakespeare Company rehearsals, she found herself splitting time between teaching and traveling to the United Kingdom. She eventually purchased a townhouse—or terraced house, in the words of the British— near the five properties associated with Shakespeare and her research sites.

As a proud owner in Stratford, Gilbert jokes that she’s burdened with a new sense of responsibility. “With all the conspiracy theories out there, it’s important that Shakespeare remains Shakespeare,” she says. “I’ve got to look out for those property values, you know.”

Joking aside, she’s continually fascinated with the town’s reverence for its famous son.

“Every year on the Saturday closest to his birthday, April 23, there’s a big parade through town,” she says. Dignitaries, townspeople, and their children—everyone carries bouquets of rosemary because, as Ophelia would say, ‘rosemary is for remembrance,’” Gilbert says. “Parade participants pass by Shakespeare’s resting place at the foot of the altar of Holy Trinity Church, leaving bouquets.”

Whether at the UI or in the U.K., Gilbert finds something new in each performance of the Bard’s works.

“My ideas about his plays are changing all the time,” she says. “That’s the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays. You can hold onto an opinion for about 30 seconds. Written into the fabric of the play there’s a lot of room for possibility.

“This is not about finding one right answer, and Shakespeare’s not on trial here—we are,” Gilbert adds. “In the end, I wonder: can we get big enough to understand him?”

Story by Stephen Cain; photo by Tom Jorgensen


February 8, 2010