Helen Hackett first became fascinated by Tudor England as a young girl, and has pursued this fascination in her books by exploring representations of Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, early modern women writers, religious poetry, and early modern fiction.
She has been at UCL since 1990 and is Professor of English, where she was active in setting up the UCL MA in English: Renaissance to Enlightenment, and was its programme co-ordinator for many years. Since 2009 she has been Co-Director of the UCL Centre for Early Modern Exchanges.
She has made a number of appearances on BBC radio, and reviews for the Times Literary Supplement.
What initially sparked your interest in English Renaissance Drama?
I had an inspiring English teacher when I was at school, Angela Trueman, with whom I first studied Marlowe, Jonson, and revenge tragedy. I was captivated by the wit and edginess of these writers, and also I have to confess by their morbidity (I was a typical teenager …!). I’ve dedicated the Short History of English Renaissance Drama to Angela, and also to Dr Christine Joy who was a wonderful teacher of Renaissance history.
I was also lucky to study and see a number of Shakespeare plays in my teens as I grew up in Manchester, some at the fantastic Royal Exchange Theatre, where I particularly remember being enraptured by Twelfth Night starring Lindsay Duncan, and some at my brother’s school. He was part of a remarkable generation of dramatically gifted pupils that included Nicholas Hytner. My brother was the lighting technician for all the school plays, so had to learn the scripts in detail for lighting cues, and this got me involved too.
Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
Obviously Shakespeare stands out a colossal figure in the landscape of Renaissance drama. One of the challenges of writing the book was trying to sum up Shakespeare’s achievement in one chapter, so I approached this by starting with the things he says about his own art as a dramatist. At the same time I wanted to show that Renaissance drama is about much more than Shakespeare: that readers and audiences can enjoy exploring Marlowe’s exhilarating and daring innovations, Jonson’s strange combination of scabrous wit and elegant classicism, the dark obsessiveness of revenge tragedy, and the many other riches of Renaissance drama.
Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
I was pleased that the book offered an opportunity to say more about women’s participation in Renaissance drama. The received wisdom is that women were excluded from the stage in Shakespeare’s time; everyone knows that at the public playhouses like the Globe female roles were taken by boy-actors. However, if we look beyond these venues we find women organizing, writing, and performing in drama at court and in country house settings, often in quite experimental and even provocative ways. This is an exciting field of current scholarship, and deserves to be communicated to a wider audience.
Which figure in history would you like to go back in time to meet and why?
Much of my research career has been spent studying Queen Elizabeth I, so I think I have to pick her – though I also find myself slightly nervous at the prospect. I don’t think she would be easy company.
What is your favourite book?
Among Renaissance plays I would have to name A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Many people think of it as a lightweight play about fairies, but the more you read or watch it the more you find deeper and darker levels emerging – it’s a sort of dream, after all. I also love The Winter’s Tale because of the extraordinary statue scene at the end. The fantasy that someone you loved and have mourned for many long years could return from the dead is profoundly moving and almost always has me in tears. ■
Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths ( Princeton University Press, 2009)
Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance ( Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Writers and Their Work: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (British Council / Northcote House, 1997)
Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen: Elizabeth I and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (1995)