Teacher and former student cross swords for the British Shakespeare Association in the U.K.

Mon, Jun 12, 2017

“Let me play the fool.” –The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Brits may take their Shakespeare very seriously, but mirth thrived in Northumbria, U.K. recently as Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) English instructor, Fred Ribkoff,and his former student John Rowell delivered their performance-based paper on The Merchant of Venice at the prestigious British Shakespeare Association Conference.

The paper grew organically out of a Studies in Shakespeare class in which KPU graduate Rowell was a guest lecturer.

“It was while preparing for John's visit to my class that he and I began developing our theory of the way in which comedy works in Merchant and Shakespeare more generally,” said Ribkoff. “While performing the opening scene of Merchant for our students, our theory of Shakespearean comedy was tested, and, I should add, to great applause.”

According to Ribkoff, this hands-on experience of putting theory into practice in the course led to the development of a more sophisticated theory of Shakespearean comedy. Ribkoff and Rowell argued and demonstrated through live performance that on a modern stage, The Merchant of Venice should be a parade of comic stereotypes functioning as a meta-theatrical machine of offence in which Antonio, Shylock and other characters expose the absurdity of stereotypes. 

“One of the reasons we enjoy working together is that we tend to approach text, performance and the instruction of both of those things from very similar angles,” said Rowell. “Another reason is that we both understand the importance of a good joke.”

Before graduating from KPU, Rowell was a student in two of Rikoff’s drama classes. Afterwards they collaborated on the writing and directing of a play, Jag and the American, which was staged at the Cultch in Vancouver. This past spring, Ribkoff invited Rowell to join him in teaching a class on The Merchant of Venice in order to help illustrate the overtly comic nature of the controversial play. In the process of preparing and performing, Ribkoff and Rowell developed and tested their theory on the importance of utilizing, rather than side-stepping, potentially offensive comic stereotypes.

“While it’s been a privilege to continue working with John inside and outside of the classroom,” said Ribkoff with a grin, “it’s been even more enjoyable to cross swords with him on stage.”

Story by Simon Chiu