Sussex researcher plays her part at Shakespeare’s Globe

Amy Kenny - Shakespeare researcher at Shakespeare's Globe, London

University of Sussex researcher Amy Kenny’s research into the family world of Tudor and Stuart England is helping to inform productions for the new season at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.

Shakespeare’s Globe, rebuilt close to the site where the Bard first staged his plays, launches its main theatre season on 7 June, with plays that place household and sexual politics and domestic drama centre stage.

Multi-award-winning actor Mark Rylance returns to the Globe to take the title role in Richard III and to reprise his role as Olivia in Twelfth Night, (both Original Practices productions, featuring all-male casts and the clothing, music, cosmetics, dance and settings of the period). Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew complete the season.

Amy Kenny divides her time between personal research and her work as a researcher at the Globe, where she has assisted on 15 productions, conducted more than 65 interviews with actors and creatives about architecture, playhouse conditions and audience response as part of an archival resource and contributed to research for the Globe’s new Indoor Jacobean Theatre.

Amy also liaised with the Globe’s digital team and festival producers to help create the Shakespeare in translation database as part of the World Shakespeare Festival 2012 – Globe to Globe during which all of Shakespeare’s plays are being performed in the languages of the world.

Here, Amy describes her work at the Globe and shares her thoughts on the plays and their author.

How did you come to be at the Globe?

I’m originally from Australia and lived in California, but I came to London to study Shakespeare. I liked it so much that in 2009 I decided to stay on to do a doctorate at the University of Sussex. Dr Farah Karim-Cooper (Head of Courses and Research at Shakespeare’s Globe) was looking for a new graduate researcher and my supervisor Professor Andrew Hadfield recommended me. The Globe researchers support the directors and actors by providing specialist knowledge on the texts, stagecraft, Elizabethan and  Jacobean theatre history, architecture and social history and practices.

What are you researching for your doctorate?

I’m looking at Shakespeare’s representation of the family and how he depicts marriage, childhood and adolescence and comparing my findings to the contemporary beliefs about families at that time – looking specifically at conception, gynaecology, reproduction and medical beliefs like that.  So, in various plays, I’ll be looking at how the family is interacting with each other and how it is depicted.

Shakespeare often manipulates his source material to highlight the family. Even in Hamlet he doesn’t focus on the regicide but on the fact that a father is killed. Why does he prioritise the ordinary everyday relationships that we can all relate to rather than high-profile political events?

I think that early modern drama is very much rooted in everyday life and Shakespeare is probably making that choice because it's something that his audience could relate to. I think the political aspects of the play have been examined quite a bit by scholars but the familial and everyday domestic relationships haven’t been researched or studied quite so much.

I’m also interested in that whole thing of prescription versus practice – there were lots of manuals prescribing appropriate behaviour, but what were people are actually doing?

What’s your role at the Globe?

Any time an actor, director, casting director, costume designer or props master has a question about Shakespeare’s plays, early modern attitudes or beliefs, or social history or the context of the plays, they come and ask the research department.

We do our best to deliver unbiased research and give all sides to answer questions like:  What religious beliefs do they have? What about social decorum?  What does this word mean? Why is this relationship depicted this way?

At the end of the theatre’s season, we interview all the actors and anyone in the production to get their feedback on the play and on working in a reconstructed playhouse: how did the architecture inform meaning? Is it different performing at the Globe to performing in a modern-style theatre? What are the extra demands placed on the body because of acoustics and shared lighting? (there are no microphones and no stage lighting used in Globe productions).

I also teach courses on early modern staging, playhouses, Shakespeare’s plays and reconstructed theatres. Farah has given me a lot of unique opportunities at the Globe with actors and scholars.

How does working at the Globe feed into your own work?

Talking to the actors and directors about Shakespeare breathes life into the scholarship. So much of what I do with my doctorate is very abstract or theoretical, removed from the everyday world. Thinking about Shakespeare in a practical way and having a practical application for the scholarship that I do is very exciting. Last year for Much Ado About Nothing they were really interested about family relationships – in uncles and cousins and marriage – things that my research looks at directly, so my work fed into the play.

I produced research documents for the director about women and marriage and patriarchy and just how feisty a character like Beatrice could be, and how much say women had in the marriage market. It’s the most visible thread between what I’m doing and what’s going on onstage.

There’s a lot of diverse work going on, from the building of the new Jacobean indoor theatre to thinking about early versus late plays, and I get to attend the lectures given by leading Shakespeare scholars. This all informs my thinking.

What have been the personal highlights?

There are so many highlights over the past three seasons I’ve worked here. I always love seeing elements of the plays I’ve worked on come out on stage in a prop, a costume or even a relationship. But I suppose one of the highlights is getting to represent the Globe in various capacities. In January, I went to the reconstructed Blackfriars Playhouse in Virginia and spent a month with their actors, watching how they perform Shakespeare in a much smaller, indoor theatre. This was really fascinating for me to see how they tackle large-scale scenes with an army and many characters on stage and helped me think about the differences in outdoor and indoor performance, particularly in light of the opening of the new Indoor Jacobean theatre here in London in 2013. Opportunities like this are something that I would not be able to get elsewhere.   

How has working in the Globe illuminated your own research?

The way the actors approach Shakespeare is such a different mindset to the scholarly approach. An actor looks at scansion, the different meter of the rhyme, when it moves from poetry to prose, when the meter isn’t quite perfect – things that I wouldn’t necessarily look at.  Some actors afterwards talk about a specific scene where something monumental has happened for them, through the switch from verse to prose, for example, and that has helped me to think about the plays in different ways.

But also I think that I have become a lot more aware of the performative aspects of the plays and the thousands of different ways to read or perform one speech. But sometimes the early modern context we provide cannot be performed onstage and that’s really affected what I think about Shakespeare and what’s going on in his plays.

Do we get a sense from the plays of what family meant to Tudor/Jacobean society, or what it meant to Shakespeare the man?

The plays for me give more of a sense of Elizabethan and Jacobean society because it’s very hard to make a case for the biography of Shakespeare based on what we know and what we don’t know.  Some scholars say he is in London to make money for his family and that’s how he buys his gentleman status and purchases his home. Others argue he wasn’t happy at home. For me that doesn’t really matter. There’s an investment in the family in his plays and so many characters interested in family relationships and for me that’s far more fascinating than Shakespeare’s own family life, probably because there’s endless possibilities of how that can be performed – whether it’s depicting his society’s notion of families or Shakespeare’s own.

Have there been any discoveries in your work that have excited you?

What I notice again and again about Shakespeare’s plays is not only that he takes the time to talk about family relationships but that he directly changes his source materials to do so. I think that’s really fascinating. He does this in Macbeth, Coriolanus and many others. He’s making some sort of conscious choice to say something about family even in political situations.

Why was family important to him?

I think it goes back to the idea that the theatre companies had no idea how long these plays were going to be performed; they were produced pretty quickly, and usually only had a couple of days’ rehearsal and then they were performed in repertory until they stop selling. What is it that brings the audiences back? I think that the audiences were paying to come back to see relationships played out again and again. It’s something that Shakespeare does throughout his career and across the genres – comedy, tragedy, romance, history – early and late, from Richard III to The Tempest. He’s always making that choice to highlight the family, and I think it’s a commercial response to what the audience wants.

What does it feel like working at the Globe?

London of course is very different to 400 years ago and this isn’t the original Globe, but it has been built using the original measurements and construction materials and because of that there’s something really unique and exciting about working here in Southwark, where Shakespeare’s plays were written and performed. And it’s just fascinating to see these plays come to life day in day out, whether it’s in the classroom teaching students from the USA and getting to take them in to see the Globe for the first time, or watching the large-scale productions – it becomes more exciting to be studying Shakespeare when you’re witnessing all that and being a part of it.

What’s your favourite Shakespeare play?

For me, Othello is the best-written play. Shakespeare knows exactly what he’s doing – the intricate relationship between Othello and Iago is masterfully done and the way Iago plants suspicion in Othello’s mind is so brilliant and terrifying. But I am not sure if I have a favourite. 

Mark Rylance is coming back for the new season in some all-male cast plays (as they were originally performed) – are you working on those?

I’ve already done a bit of research for the casting director. She wanted to know what type of males she should be casting – strong burlesque males, or effeminate ones? They would have had younger adolescents playing the female roles originally, so I did some research on the types of players that would have performed these roles, what size and body type they were, what pitch their voices were, what age they were, how tall they were, all of that.

Twelfth Night  [Rylance plays the grieving Olivia] will be interesting as the play makes so much of gender – Orsino never sees the disguised Viola in her “woman’s weeds”. So it will be interesting to see what the men make of the female roles, especially as they’re so important in that play. I’m also working on the other plays in the season as well. 


Notes for Editors

Amy Kenny is a research student and an Associate Tutor in the School of English at the University of Sussex.  

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

View press releases

Last updated: Friday, 25 May 2012