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Student explores concept of “ideal love” in Shakespeare

August 27, 2013

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    Erica Terpening-Romeo '14 in Lewis & Clark's 2010 production of "Romeo and Juliet."

During the summer, Lewis & Clark students continue to work hard in their fields of study. By collaborating with faculty on research projects, students are able to engage their curiosity, expand their learning, and prepare for life after college, all while making meaningful contributions to scholarship.

Erica Terpening-Romeo ’14 is working with Assistant Professor of English Jerry Harp on a book about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The book acts as an analysis of the performance of the play and critiques the notion of “ideal love” that has come to be associated with it. In the following Q&A, Harp and Terpening-Romeo reflect on their experience.

What are you researching? What question or problem are you trying to answer/solve with your research?

Harp: We are working on a book of performance criticism about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, based on the Lewis & Clark production in the fall of 2010 directed by Associate Professor of Theatre Stepan Simek. This play has often been interpreted as a story of ideal love—the “greatest love story ever told.” But as our production emphasized, the play is far more complex in its implications.

Terpening-Romeo: We are especially interested in the idea that Shakespeare has taken a tired, familiar, formulaic genre—the Petrarchan love tragedy—and inserted into it characters who are a little too smart, a little too savvy, or a little too complex for the genre to hold. As for what question we are trying to answer, I am particularly interested in whether it’s ultimately better for a character to have a kind of meta-awareness of her own story, and thus, her own fate. Is Juliet better off for her ability to glimpse her tragic end?

Does your research have any potential applications in the real world, or will it influence other work in your field?

Harp: Much of what we have discussed is the insight the play offers concerning how to live and how to die, not to mention its implications concerning the complexities of human love and the hazards of idealization. I take it that these ideas open into some very practical applications. Besides, since all the world is a stage, all work concerning the theater is applicable to the real world—it is the real world.

Terpening-Romeo: In a sense, we are all inhabitants of old stories, travelers on long-trodden paths, and how aware we are (or choose to be) of those stories and paths changes how we experience them. So we are all up against what we claim Juliet is up against, to some degree.

What first sparked your interest in this research area?

Harp: I had the idea to write a book about Romeo and Juliet while working on the Lewis & Clark production. I started the project in the summer of 2011 with three assistants: Collin Lawson B.A. ’12 (who played Romeo), Erica Terpening-Romeo ’14 (who played Juliet), and Tessa Siegel B.A. ’11 (who played Benvolio). Soon it became apparent that this was a coauthored project rather than one in which I was simply an author being assisted by others. Erica and I are now finishing up the book.

Terpening-Romeo: I have been interested in Shakespeare since I was a child. I grew up around a Shakespeare festival, and my first exposure to theatre was through Shakespeare. When I was ten years old, I found my stepmother’s copy of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, and spent the summer taking copious notes on each of the 37 plays based on Asimov’s analysis. When I think back on it now almost 15 years later, I realize I was sort of playing at being a scholar. That same year, I played Juliet for the first time in a troupe of 10 to 15-year-old girls. The play has stayed with me since, and when Jerry invited me to work with him on this project, I jumped at the opportunity.

How has working closely with faculty influenced your education?

Terpening-Romeo: I would say that working closely with faculty has defined my college experience. I took several years off before coming to college, and so I was less interested in the social aspect of college life. I chose Lewis & Clark because of the reputation of the faculty here for being exceptionally dedicated to teaching and mentorship. Since my first semester, I was astonished to have professors sticking their necks out for me in various ways, going out of their ways to make mine as full and rewarding a learning experience as possible. Working closely with faculty has built my confidence, opened doors, and given me opportunities—most notably the rare chance to co-author a scholarly text as an undergraduate—that I would never have otherwise had.

How do you hope your experiences this summer will impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

Terpening-Romeo: My dream is to eventually have a kind of dual career of teaching Renaissance literature at the university level and being a professional director. About a year ago, I started a Shakespeare company with Lewis & Clark alumna Caitlin Fisher-Draeger B.A. ’12. We are in rehearsals now for our first production, and my plan is to dedicate the next few years to growing the company and directing as many productions as we can afford to produce. The work on the book is preparing me for the other half of my career as a scholar of Shakespeare’s plays. This research is giving me hands-on, real life experience in the kind of writing that I hope to do in graduate study and beyond, and once the book is published, I hope it may even smooth the way to doctoral programs and work opportunities in my field.

About the program

The Mellon Foundation grant provides funds to help faculty infuse collaborative research into a broad range of new and existing courses, and supports an increased number of student-faculty summer research projects.

“We firmly believe that engaging students in the practice of their discipline is the best way to prepare them for life beyond the college,” said Tuajuanda Jordan, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Student-faculty research is seen as one of the strengths of our educational experience, and with this grant we can ensure that students have access to this type of opportunity.”

With this support, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation continues its long legacy of supporting and enriching the arts and humanities at Lewis & Clark.

Department of English

Zibby Pillote ’14 contributed to this story.