Faculty forum explores Shakespeare, spies, and vampires

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February 28, 2014

Shakespeare, Spies, and Vampires: Why are supernatural beings so popular in historical fiction?

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin-Platteville College of Liberal Arts and Education will host its second faculty forum of the spring semester, “Shakespeare, Spies, and Vampires: The Ethics of Historical Fiction and Costume Drama” on Thursday, March 6 from 5-6:30 p.m. in Lundeen Lecture Hall, 103 Doudna Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Dr. Terry Burns, English professor and chair of the humanities department at UW-Platteville, will be presenting and Dr. Amanda Tucker, assistant professor of English at UW-Platteville, will respond.

Burns’ presentation will explore what is meant by “historical fiction,” the cultural values inherent in those definitions, and then look at several recent works that would be considered historical fiction if not for the central role played by vampires, witches, time-travelers, necromancers and other supernatural beings. 

Burns said there is a “perfect storm” of intersecting trends in popular historical fiction set in the Renaissance. She said that while “vampire” fiction and other popular fiction featuring supernatural characters has become much in vogue, the “realistic” historical fiction of this particular era has shifted focus onto plotlines that involve characters who are usually associated with the occult, such as Nostradamus, a 16th century French apothecary and seer; or John Dee, a 16th century English mathematician, astronomer and astrologer.

Burns said that at the same time, popular works in young adult fantasy fiction portray the same characters in clearly ahistorical contexts.

“It’s not particularly surprising to find occultists like Dr. John Dee and Sir Edward Kelley in a novel like historian Deb Harkness’s ‘Shadow of Night,’ since Harkness wrote a scholarly history titled ‘John Dee's Conversations with Angels,’ said Burns. “What is surprising is that first, she’s writing under her real name and second, she’s a tenured historian at the University of Southern California, writing what might be called marvelously well-researched historical fiction, except for the fact that the main two characters are a witch and vampire transported back in time to London in 1591. The book’s a best-seller and others have followed.”

And how does Shakespeare fit in?

“In creative works set in the Renaissance, Shakespeare becomes a very problematic character since so little is known about his life, not to mention that the contemporary ‘stage’ of supernatural fiction is one that, in many ways, was set up by his work,” said Burns.

In the response portion of the forum, Tucker will discuss the ethics of reading historical fiction, including what is involved in ethical reading strategies and what it requires of readers.

“When readers read in ethical ways, they become more empathetic, more socially aware, and socially intelligent,” said Tucker. “Ultimately, I want to reclaim reading fiction as something that goes beyond entertainment or enjoyment.”

Contact: Dr. Terry Burns, department of humanities, (608) 342-1880, burnst@uwplatt.edu

Written by: Jena Garrett, College of Liberal Arts and Education, (608) 342-6191, garrettj@uwplatt.edu


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