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Faculty Feature: Carmine G. Di Biase

Dr. Carmine Di Biase is a Professor of English at JSU and is involved in The Shakespeare Project. He was born in Salem, Ohio, to Italian immigrants who came here in the 1950s just after WWII. Growing up, Di Biase was surrounded with the beauty of language and music—he spoke Italian at home with his family and used English in the outside world, and his grandfather was a musician and poet.

In 1993, Di Biase began teaching 16th and 17th English literature at JSU. And while he says that he loves teaching advanced courses in the Renaissance, he admits that he also dearly loves teaching first semester freshman English. “It allows me to prove, over and over again, to myself and to students, that very advanced matters of style come from within, not from without: language is the human heartbeat translated into words. So we spend a good deal of time in class talking about the rhythm of phrases, and how the sound of a word helps to convey its meaning,” he said.

In addition to teaching Shakespeare courses at JSU, Di Biase is also involved in The Shakespeare Project, an initiative to connect the community with professional performances of Shakespeare. Di Biase summarizes the initial goal of the project: “what they wanted to do was offer professional performances of Shakespeare mainly to high school students, free of charge, at the Anniston High School’s Performing Arts Center.”

Di Biase has been the dramaturg in both of the project’s two seasons, which he views as a true delight. He explained the role of a dramaturg: “what I do is attend the rehearsals and take notes on every syllable that actors need to correct: sometimes it’s a matter of pronunciation, sometimes a matter of emphasis, at other times a matter of meaning—one must know, of course, what a passage means if one hopes to communicate with an audience.” This experience has provided Di Biase with a fresh take on Shakespeare, as well. “When one has to make sense of every syllable of the play, and convey that sense to an audience, and do so in a way that integrates that syllable into the whole poetic fabric of the play, one stands to learn a great deal about Shakespeare’s vision,” he said.

Now that both of the project’s founders have left JSU, Di Biase has assumed the role of Managing Director. “This means that in addition to serving as dramaturg, I’ll be doing some of the grant writing and other forms of fund raising. I’m throwing myself deep into this work because I do passionately want the project to become a tradition,” he explained. 

One of the reasons Di Biase is enthusiastic about the project is because it benefits the community. “Last year we brought Julius Caesar to over 2,000 local high school students and some 800 members of the community at large,” he said. For high school students interested in drama, there is even an apprenticeship program which allows students to work in costuming, scenic design, or performance. Di Biase specifically mentions how much he loves high school audiences, whose chatter is quite similar to the audiences in Shakespeare’s day: “the raucous [ones] especially, the ones that can’t help chattering during the performances but are nevertheless thoroughly engaged. When little Macduff got slaughtered onstage this summer in Macbeth, I heard one student call out, ‘Aw naw man, that ain’t right!’”

And the impact of The Shakespeare Project reaches further than local high school audiences. Di Biase notes that he persuaded one of his cycling friends to attend a performance of Macbeth: “I don’t think he’d ever seen a Shakespeare play before, live or otherwise,” he said. “Two weeks later—on the local mountain bike trails and on our road rides—he is still talking about the experience, and asking me about the story, about the actors and where they came from, about when the next play will happen. It’s extraordinary, really.”

Di Biase is thankful to be part of a university that encourages such projects. He also enjoys the intellectual freedom that he is given as a professor, and the opportunities for faculty: “although I never tire of teaching Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers, I never wanted to specialize in any particular literary field, and here at JSU I’m free to publish in any field I wish,” he said.

Of course, one of his favorite things about JSU is the faculty and staff. Di Biase is so thankful to have “the best colleagues one could ask for,” both in and out of the English Department. “My colleagues have enriched my life more than they know. I play violin for the JSU Civic Orchestra, which, under the expert leadership of Dr. Benson, is a huge pleasure for me and forces me to make whatever small improvements I can make to my playing. And in Drama, Dr. Boynton, who gave me my real introduction to the First Folio approach to Shakespearean performance, has led me to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays in new and different ways, unlocking a whole new universe of meaning in them. Because of this, I now have three new articles on Shakespeare in the work,” he said.

From the English Department, Di Biase mentions his dear colleague Dr. Gray. At the encouragement of Gray, Di Biase attended the Henry James Society Conference in Trieste, Italy, last July to present a research topic. Although he had never written about Henry James, he was intrigued by the year’s theme—aural dimension (sound). Di Biase immediately thought to reread one of his favorite James novels, The Aspern Papers, “because it takes place in Venice, which is just two hours from Trieste, and more importantly it is a most quiet city, as there are no cars there, only boats and foot traffic.”

Quite inevitably, his research brought him back to Shakespeare: “what I discovered is that the most important sounds in James’s novel are human utterances and the patter of footsteps on the stones. And to my surprise, moreover, I was, once again, taken back to Shakespeare, and indeed to Macbeth, which I believe was a powerful influence on James while he wrote this beautiful novel. That’s the topic of my essay,” he said.  In preparation for the conference, Di Biase also read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. He adds that they are “beautiful, and difficult, love poems. I read them because I knew that I’d be visiting the castle this past July during my stay in Trieste.”   

The experience was nothing short of inspiring. “I was most encouraged by the enthusiastic responses of the editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of The Aspern Papers and of the founder of the Henry James Society, who were both in the audience. I’ll be finishing this article in about two months and sending it off,” he added. After the article is finished, Di Biase will turn his attention back to a translation project on Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. His translation “will also include the first English translations of a selection of his stories, plays, and essays and also of the sequel to Pinocchio, a story about a monkey who wants to be a human being, a beautiful, practically unknown story.”

To English majors at JSU, Di Biase gives the following advice: “If you love the language, if you love being able to render all of your experiences in words—and it is, after all, one of life’s greatest satisfactions—then major in it, or at least minor in it. You don’t have to become an English teacher: that won’t make you rich. But it will make you better at whatever you do choose to specialize in.”

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