Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.
Today, the spotlight is on Igor Djordjevic, a professor and researcher in the Department of English at Glendon.
Djordjevic’s research is focused on the field of dramatic and non-dramatic Renaissance writing, with an interest in the history of reading and the relationships between English cultural memory and historical writing. He is the author of two books, as well as several articles, on the subject.
Q. Please describe your field of current research
A. My research is in the field of Early Modern (or Renaissance) historical writing. I study how Renaissance Englishmen and women wrote, and more importantly, read the history of their own as well as other nations, and to what uses they put it in their own re-renderings of these historical narratives. In brief, one may call it a history of reading.
Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?
A. My interest in this particular area was sparked many years ago, upon reading Shakespeare’s history plays about the turbulent 15th century in England – events we now call the Hundred Years War against France and the Wars of the Roses – when I noticed that Shakespeare seemed “not to know” his history, at least insofar as his treatment of the events and people did not correspond to what I had studied in medieval history. Eventually this became the subject of my doctoral dissertation, where I studied Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland which was the main historiographic source of Shakespeare’s (as well as many other English Renaissance writers’) understanding of their history and national identity. That thesis in time grew into my first book, Holinshed’s Nation.
Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?
A. Although I do not wish to flatter myself that I have necessarily accomplished anything that might have rocked the academic world, I do think that my argument for the return to reading Renaissance chronicles with a “literary eye” has allowed the community of literary scholars such as myself to appreciate the rhetorical nuances of these texts and the considerable artistry that went into their composition. That is to say, in my own work I approach these historical works as “literature” much as their authors and original readers understood them, and I do not get bogged down in problems resulting from a perspective that might see them as “flawed” or “inaccurate” (if not downright “false”) sources of history. In the Renaissance understanding of the purposes of writing – even if it purports to be “historical” – a good deal of invention in the narratives is not only to be tolerated, but also to be esteemed, as these “poetic fictions” tend to elucidate the greater truths in the subject even when the exact details may be unknown to the author, or lost in the mists of time.
Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?
A. The “difference” in my approach, I suppose, is in the fact that I am nominally a professor of English Literature yet am devoting my scholarship to a body of texts that have for a very long time indeed been considered almost exclusively by historians. I bring to bear upon them both my own expertise in literary matters as well as extensive research into political, cultural and legal history that informs the contexts of the works. Although this kind of interdisciplinarity is fast becoming the norm nowadays in Early Modern studies, I believe that it simply essential for an informed understanding of the nature of these complex texts – both in terms of how they were composed, and how they were received in their own time.
Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?
A. I think that the study of Shakespeare’s and other history plays from the end of the 16th century has benefitted from this kind of approach (I am by no means alone in this field), because a “literary” approach to these texts – that is to say, one attuned to the rhetorical nuance of the text as well as the readers’ reception of the texts in the way we conventionally handle any literary text in any period – has allowed the community of literary scholars, and particularly Shakespeare scholars approaching his history plays, to take a second look at texts that had been dismissed as “flawed” or as “propagandistic” by generations of historians in the 20th century. In the wake of some landmark studies over the last 20 years, such dismissive views of the chronicles are increasingly becoming rare. In short, literary and dramatic scholars have begun to handle these historiographic texts in response to the needs of their own discipline and their individual foci of research.
Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)
A. Probably the most “exciting” as well as “surprising” thing I discovered in the course of my research became the subject of my second book, King John (Mis)Remembered. While looking for the roots of the shift in the public and cultural perception of King John in the Renaissance period – where he went from being celebrated by one generation as an exemplary king to being vilified by another as a grasping tyrant – I never expected to find that the change in the reputation of the king can be dated very precisely to the work of three individuals, and to a set of three works. And even more exciting than that, it turns out that the very moment when John started to be broadly conceived as “bad” has nothing to do with “history” as we understand it, but rather with literature. I mean, the downwards spiral of John’s reputation in popular culture can be dated to begin with a play by Anthony Munday in which King John meets Robin Hood for the very first time. John never really recovers from that.
Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?
A. I can’t say that I’ve encountered many obstacles during the periods of inquiry – aside from worrying that my funds would run out. Obviously, my research relies heavily on my ability to go to England and to access the materials and locations. Planning the visit to be efficient and to get access to everything in the allotted time becomes as important as securing the funding for the trip in the first place. As far as the “roadblocks” are concerned, any young scholar is likely to encounter some “roadblocks”, as you put it, especially if his or her research seeks to unsettle some widely held scholarly assumptions. This is more likely to occur at the beginning of one’s career, but with determination and the ability to find the “right” outlets for the publication of one’s first works (when one doesn’t have a “reputation” that editors esteem yet) these roadblocks can indeed be navigated. I have been fortunate to work with excellent editors and peer-reviewers who offered constructive criticism that ultimately improved the quality of my publications.
Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?
A. There is far too much that is worth exploring in the field of English historical writing of nationhood, and I feel that one lifetime is not enough to consider even a fraction of it. But the process of research into one topic usually gives birth to another idea in not necessarily the same area. For example, working on the memory of King John in the 16th and 17th centuries alerted me to the existence of “topical clusters” of works on a related subject – in this case, a king. This reveals a far more vibrant cultural debate about history and memory in this period than we previously imagined. As a result, I am now deeply immersed in the research of the historical and popular renderings of another famous event that was considered controversial in Renaissance England – and perhaps by some still today. I mean the disappearance of the two boys, the “Princes in the Tower” in the reign of Richard III, and the subsequent emergence of a pretender in the reign of Henry VII who claimed to be one of the boys in question. English authors from the start of the 17th century seem not to be equally convinced that the man they called Perkin Warbeck was the impostor King Henry VII said he was. I am interested in exploring the reasons for the revived interest in this event precisely at that time, and what the contexts were that may have informed it.
Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?
A. Yes, my research is by definition interdisciplinary, as I mentioned. I deal with historical narratives, the historiography that presents them, the contemporary readers who consume them, the artists who adapt them for popular literary forms, their own audiences in the theatres, the history and logistics of the English Renaissance theatre, and finally, the political and legal contexts that inform all of the above.
Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?
A. You mean apart from Renaissance studies? Yes. Until few years ago I was also quite active in the field of the Restoration and 18th Century. I published several articles in that field, but I find that I have been more or less engrossed in the Renaissance research of late.
Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?
A. Yes, I am, and all my teaching naturally grows out my research to which I freely allude. This year I am teaching two undergraduate courses at Glendon: Reading Shakespeare (EN3620) and English Renaissance Literature (EN3220), as well as graduate course that is intrinsically linked with my current and past research projects: The English History Play (EN6230). Next year I will be teaching a different set of courses, again combining my research and teaching interests in the Renaissance and the 18th Century.
Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?
A. Have your focus on a topic be based on a clear personal understanding of the primary texts before you turn to the secondary sources – the published scholarly discourse. Novice researchers who have not yet focused themselves properly may easily get overawed by the published scholarship out there. Only by being confident in your own ideas first will you be able to effectively engage with the scholarly discourse in your field and to put it to productive use in your own writing.
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself.
A. I am what psychologists have termed a “Third Culture” kid – someone for whom the question of cultural identity proves to be an unsolvable conundrum. As the son of a former journalist my life was originally put into a pattern by my parents’ frequent moves around the world, but I later continued it by studying and working in different corners of the globe. So, I’ve lived and studied and worked in many parts of the world: the former Yugoslavia, Kenya, Lebanon, Israel, the United States, and finally Canada. While all of these places have been my “home” at some point of my life, they all equally were not – in the sense that I never fully “belong” in any one place. Being considered a “foreigner” in every place you live does have its advantages: one gets to study the people and the culture around them without the cultural or ideological “blinkers” that sometimes impair the “locals” from seeing a problem from more than one perspective. I think this kind of life experience has prepared me well for what I do as a teacher in a multicultural environment like Canada and particularly at York University, and it has trained me especially well for what I do as a researcher in the field of emergent English nationhood in the late medieval and early modern periods.
Q. How long have you been a researcher?
A. In this field, for almost 15 years – if you count from when I began my work on my dissertation.
Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?
A. Probably one of the most profound and formative influences on my life came many years ago when I first viewed the six-episode PBS series interviewing Joseph Campbell on “The Power of Myth” and soon afterwards when I read Campbell’s famous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Many other books and films have been significant to me at various times of my life, but if I had to single out the most important influence, I suppose this would be it.
Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?
A. I’m rather eclectic in my viewing tastes and prefer to watch movies to “unwind” rather than conventional TV. But, in terms of TV series, I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones and House of Cards and while I’m waiting for those to come on, I’m currently watching the Danish series Borgen. But it’s not all politics all the time. I also love cartoons. Reading? Nothing for pleasure at the moment, I’m afraid. No time for pleasurable reading when reading is “work.” In the summers when I am not reading in preparation for my classes or for my research, I tend to turn to novels by Umberto Eco or Stephen King.
Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?
A. Jonathan Swift, without a doubt, if I was looking for a fun evening. As one of the smartest and funniest men who ever lived, he’s everything you’d like in a fun dinner companion. But for my own intellectual curiosity’s sake, I’d love to meet King Richard III and ask him what on earth actually happened when he was alive. That would be more of a “working dinner” than “fun”, of course.
Q. What do you do for fun?
A. I’m a devoted football (soccer) fan, and watch all the matches of my club, Arsenal – which pretty much sustains me through the school year. Apart from the football, I enjoy spending time with my family, watching lots of movies, going out with my friends. Every year I try to go see a place in the world that I had not seen before – typically combining historical architecture with a spell on the beach.