On April 14 hundreds of scholars gathered in the Millennium Hall of the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia for the second day of the thirty-fourth annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America (SAA), a nonprofit, academic organization devoted to the study of William Shakespeare and his plays and poems. The SAA holds these three-day meetings in different cities every year so that its members can exchange ideas and discuss strategies for reading, teaching, researching, and writing about Shakespeare’s works. I joined the scholars for lunch on what also happened to be Good Friday, which explains why the menu’s main course was fish (unless otherwise requested) rather than a flank of meat.
Some people at my table joked that the only way a group of Shakespeare scholars could afford such a nice luncheon in one of the city’s top hotels was by having it on Easter weekend. Indeed, it was a pricey place, and the luncheon was held in what used to be a bank—the PSFS Building, a National Historic Landmark that was renovated into the Loews Hotel in the 1990s. A vault door still stands on the far wall in what looks like it would have been the banking floor. I could picture bank windows and tellers lining the walls as waiters cleared dirty dishes from the tables.
The SAA crowd was about who you’d expect from a group that studies the works of the most famous dead British playwright: A lot of white-haired professors in tweed, some with clipped British accents. But the rest of the crowd was composed of mostly young academic professionals. There was a tenured professor from Penn State who talked about his college courses and why he chose to come to this year’s meeting of the SSA even though he’s not technically a Shakespeare scholar (simple: the conference was held in his state), and a group of middle-aged women spoke about the holidays.
Also seated at the table was a newly hired faculty member from UCLA who swapped his dessert with a newly minted PhD in the thick of his job hunt. A first-year graduate student joined us, too. The conversation skipped from one topic to another, but the one thing no one talked about was Shakespeare. That was for the seminars, which were held during all three days of the event, and featured titles like “ The Shakespearean Idiom,” “Early Modern Melancholies,” “Science and Religion in the Early Modern Period,” and “Shakespearean Sensations.”
But lunch was for other topics, such as the weather, the challenges of writing a dissertation, and the ridiculous things people do for their pets. After a spirited conversation about whether or not dogs really need fur-lined sweaters, the organization’s president, Dr. William C. Carroll, stepped up to the stage. He made jokes about Philadelphia sports, the forthcoming Rocky movie, and his own middle age. There was also some of what sounded like typical SAA news, including the honoring of members who had passed away during the previous year.
While conferences like these are organized to further the advancement of academic study—and I’m sure there was a lot of serious studying going on—it was hard for me to believe that it’s the only reason the scholars came to Philadelphia on a holiday weekend. There was a lot of hand-shaking and CV padding going on, of course, but that’s what any conference is for—making both social and professional connections.
Thankfully, this year’s SAA meeting was pleasantly devoid of the kitsch that envelops other professional conferences—there were no travel mugs or laser pens in Shakespearean goodie bags. Of course, I doubt anyone would have protested a free Bard cup, or even a stress-squeeze ball in the shape of Yorick’s skull. Maybe next year.