UA Crimson Spotlight: Get to Know Professor Jennifer Drouin

Jennifer Drouin
Jennifer Drouin

One of the vital cogs in the proud machine that is The University of Alabama Department of English is Jennifer Drouin. She is an assistant professor who teaches Shakespeare and Renaissance drama. We are extremely lucky to have a professor who feels as strongly about the arts, particularly Shakespearean literature. Professor Drouin also recently had a book published called Shakespeare in Quebec: Nation, Gender and Adaptation, published in March 2014. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Professor Drouin on Shakespeare and her new book.

From which universities did you receive your degrees?

I did my BA entirely in French at a small Acadian university called Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia where I grew up. My MA was in English at Acadia University, also in NS. I did a year of PhD studies in Québec Studies in French at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and then I moved to McGill in Montreal to do my PhD in English on the same topic that I had begun in French, Québécois Shakespeares. Throughout my studies, I’ve alternated between French and English, which led naturally to writing in English about literature written in French.

I’ve been told you have been to France. What was that like? Were you an instructor at an institution there, and if so, how does instructing and learning environment there differ from here?

I was a Visiting Professor during March 2013 at Université du Havre in the Normandy region of France. I was invited by the Groupe de recherche identités et cultures (GRIC), a research lab devoted to literature and cultural studies from an interdisciplinary perspective. I gave an hour-long presentation in French summarizing the primary arguments of my book, and I presented a paper during their “Modern Wars on Screen” conference. I guest-lectured for three Master’s level classes and one undergraduate class, and one of the Master’s level classes was in French. The classes I taught covered such topics as Shakespeare’s King Lear, Shakespeare in the popular Canadian television series Wayne & Shuster, and gender and sexuality in Indian cinema. On the same trip, I also presented my research at the Institut de recherche sur la Renaissance, l’âge Classique et les Lumières (IRCL) at Université Montpellier III in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France.

The French educational system is very different from the American system. French professors are extremely productive and publish prolifically. There are two types of classroom formats, lectures and workshops, but lectures tend to be more common. Students take more responsibility for their own learning. Somewhat paradoxically, despite their incredible productivity, the French seem to do a better job of achieving work-life balance. In terms of my ongoing research, it was exciting to see how Québécois Shakespeares are received in France and to discern the linguistic and cultural similarities and differences between Québec and France.

I’ve also been told that you are fluent in French. How does this enhance your understanding of your native tongue?

Learning a second language is a great way to master one’s mother tongue, especially the intricacies of grammar that one might know instinctively but not think about consciously. Although I am fluent in French now, I also studied Latin for three years and at one point I knew more Latin than French. Studying Latin and French provided the opportunity to learn about English grammar comparatively. These foreign languages also provided insight into the etymology of many English words.

What is the focus of your new book Shakespeare in Quebec: Nation, Gender, and Adaptation?

Shakespeare in Québec analyzes representations of nation and gender in Shakespearean adaptations written in Québec since the Quiet Revolution, a period of massive social change that began in 1960. I trace the evolution of discourses of nation and gender in Québec from the Conquest of New France to the present through the lenses of postcolonial and gender theory, and I elaborate a theory of adaptation specific to Shakespeare studies. Close readings of ten plays investigate the radical changes to content that allowed Québécois playwrights to contribute to the hot debates of the Quiet Revolution, the 1970 October Crisis, the 1980 and 1995 referenda, the rise of feminism, and the emergence of AIDS. These readings reveal not only how Shakespeare has been adapted in Québec but also how Québécois adaptations have evolved in response to changes in the political climate. The book explains why Québécois playwrights seem so obsessed with rewriting “le grand Will,” what changes they make to the Shakespearean text, and how the differences between Shakespeare and the adaptations engage the nationalist, feminist, and queer concerns of Québec society. In analyzing how nation trumps gender in these plays, I tackle the politics of recognition, differences between Canadian multiculturalism and Québécois interculturalism, and tensions between nation and gender that play out on the bodies of women in politics. As a critical analysis in English of rich but largely ignored French plays, Shakespeare in Québec bridges Canada’s “two solitudes.”

What inspired you to write this book?

This research topic was a way for me to combine my two strongest passions, Shakespeare studies and Québec studies. I’m an anglophone, but I did my undergraduate studies entirely in French at an Acadian university where most of my professors were Québécois. I quickly fell in love with Québécois culture, which was a new and exciting revelation once I had learned enough French to understand it. I now consider Québec my home, yet I’ve never forgotten my roots in Nova Scotia where Shakespeare was very important to me growing up in a Loyalist town with deep colonial ties to British culture. My scholarly trajectory has alternated back-and-forth between English and French. One summer I was browsing in a friend’s used bookstore on Rue Hart in Trois-Rivières (“bouquiner,” a word I like as much as the activity itself), and I stumbled across an original edition of Robert Gurik’s Hamlet, prince du Québec, and that was it. With this research, I wanted to bridge Canada’s “two solitudes” by bringing an analysis of Québécois plays in French to an anglophone audience. I’m fascinated by the Québécois nationalist movement and its long, rich history, but I’d always been interested in feminism, gender, and sexuality studies too, so rather than focus on only nation or only gender in the plays I decided to look at both and the relationship between the two.

What is your writing process when you construct ideas and create a book?

I return home to Montréal to write when classes at UA are not in session. Most of the adapted plays I wrote about can be found in the archives of the Centre des auteurs dramatiques which is now in the Old Port area downtown. I conducted a lot of research at McGill’s library, and a good chunk of this book was written at Café Expressions on Avenue Mont-Royal where I was a regular fixture. Obviously, it helps to be immersed in Québécois culture when writing about it, so just hearing people talking on the streets, songs on the radio, and watching television or films when I wasn’t writing provided inspiration and sometimes helped make ideas click.

I also find it useful to listen to music when writing as a way to keep myself in the same headspace. For each chapter, I listened to the same CD on repeat during the entire writing process. I found this process helpful since the music would serve as a kind of subconscious reminder of where I was in the writing process, a kind of trigger that would remind me where I had left off the previous days and provide a constant thread throughout my ideas, thereby minimizing the impression of facing a blank page each morning.

What is your favorite Shakespearean work?

For the depth of the writing and emotional impact, King Lear is my favourite play, and I teach a course on sources and adaptations of King Lear that starts with Geoffrey of Monmouth and covers several theatrical adaptations, including Jean-Pierre Ronfard’s Lear which I discuss in my book, as well as Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres and several cinematic productions and adaptations. King Lear is so rich that it’s not surprising that it’s one of Shakespeare’s most frequently adapted plays. My other favourite play, The Two Noble Kinsmen which Shakespeare co-wrote with John Fletcher, is less well-known. I like it because it’s Shakespeare’s queerest play, full of both male and female homoeroticism, and because it’s interesting to see how Shakespeare and Fletcher adapted the story from Boccaccio’s Teseida and Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. We tend to think of Shakespeare as a creative genius, but we tend to forget that he was the ultimate adapter whose plays are rewritten from prior source texts.

How do you feel about the cinematic representations of Shakespearean works, particularly the films that set the works in the present day like the 2000 version of Hamlet with Ethan Hawke and the Baz Luhrman directed version of Romeo + Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio?

The eminent Shakespearean critic Terence Hawkes has famously written that Shakespeare does not mean but it is we who mean by Shakespeare. People interpret Shakespeare through the lens of their own historical or national context. Shakespeare remains relevant today because we continue to grapple with our own contemporary social problems through his works, either through literary criticism, stage productions, cinematic productions, or adaptations and appropriations. Hawkes proposed that we take a “presentist” approach to Shakespeare: for instance, one can read George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in light of Henry V’s invasion of France and both characters’ reputations as impertinent bad boys in their youth. Cinematic productions that update Shakespeare to a contemporary setting, such as Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Clare Danes, speak to contemporary audiences because they speak to social issues with which we continue to grapple today. Most of Shakespeare’s works were not created out of nothing; rather, Shakespeare mined and adapted other works and improved upon them. In that sense, it is normal for contemporary writers and directors to adapt Shakespeare to address present day issues. This summer, I will be teaching EN 333 as part of the UA at Oxford program. We will be studying plays that contain problematic representations of race and religion for contemporary audiences, such as Othello and The Merchant of Venice, and asking ourselves the following questions: Is a play really a comedy anymore if it makes us squirm rather than laugh? How might our conceptions of race, as residents of Alabama highly attuned to the history of racism in the South, differ from conceptions of race in early modern England when Shakespeare wrote Othello? How does the Holocaust change our interpretation of The Merchant of Venice? These are the types of questions that Shakespeare’s texts prompt us to ask in our current context because we make meaning and make sense of our world through Shakespeare.