On the second of November, I attended a research seminar held by UCC’s School of English, entitled ‘Inuit women in Early Modern London: Caubvik sees Cymbeline at Covent Garden’ by M. W. Booth. Booth is currently working on a book about cognitive theory and Shakespeare, and the seminar he delivered forms a chapter of that book. This seminar looked at three main topics: the play Cymbeline itself, the notion of cognitive theory, and the viewing of Cymbeline by Caubvick, a Native Canadian woman, in Covent Garden. With this blog post, I hope to briefly go through each of these topics in order to give a decent summary of Booth’s very enjoyable seminar.
Firstly, the play itself: Cymbeline was originally published in 1623 and is one of Shakespeare’s later, and most bizarre, plays. The plot focuses mainly on the romantic mishaps of Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline of Britain, and mishmashes Shakespeare’s earlier tropes, such as romantic betrayal, pseudo death, and cross-dressing. You can check out the trailer for the RSC’s 2016 production of Cymbeline below.
The notion of cognitive theory is the aspect of Booth’s seminar that I found the most fascinating. According to Booth, cognitive theory shows how we communicate and understand through scenarios as well as words. From my own understanding, we basically visually apply our own experience to scenarios. This concept becomes very important when Booth goes on to examine how a Native Canadian woman viewed Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, despite her limited grasp of the English language. Booth himself is interested in the idea of ‘conceptual integration’ or blending, that is, the idea that conception works across cultural and linguistic barriers.
This theory of ‘cognitive integration’ is then applied to the case study of Caubvick, an Inuit woman who attended a performance of a Shakespeare play in the 18th century. Caubvick was visiting London with her husband and the English trader George Cartwright. Booth focuses the majority of his seminar on Caubvick’s attendance of a performance of Cymbeline in Covent Garden in 1772. In so doing, he questions the way in which Caubvick, an indigenous woman, could have understood the events of the play. As she possessed little to no English, Caubvick would have to visually interpret events on stage in order to understand the plot. Booth gives an example of this – at the beginning of the play, there is an instance of gift exchange between Imogen and Posthumus. Booth argues that this would resonate with Inuit audience members, who were often painted or photographed wearing jewellery.
Indeed, Booth goes a step further by arguing that an Inuit woman such as Caubvick had a better understanding of the play than the famous critic Samuel Johnson. This is because an indigenous person would have looked past the historical inaccuracies that Johnson loathed in the play, thereby aiding a better understanding of Cymbeline. While I do not fully endorse this view, I do find Booth’s argument of the importance of visual understanding to be a compelling one.
Although I hate to admit it, I have largely avoided Shakespeare throughout my undergraduate degree, preferring instead to stick to modernism and postmodernism. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed Booth’s seminar on a cultural reading of one of the Bard’s lesser known and lesser performed plays. For me, the seminar was a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to take a break from my own academic interests in order to enjoy a story of an interesting collision of two cultures.
Title Image: Wikipedia
Booth, M. W. “Inuit Women in Early Modern London: Caubvick Sees Cymbeline at Covent Garden”. Research Seminar. University College Cork, Cork. 2 Nov. 2016. Lecture.