2003 - Shakespeare and European Politics (Utrecht)

From 4 to 7 December 2003, Utrecht University hosted an international conference around the theme of Shakespeare and European Politics. The conference was organized jointly by the universities of Utrecht, the Netherlands (Ton Hoenselaars en Paul Franssen), Namur, Belgium (Dirk Delabastita), and Ghent, Belgium (Jozef de Vos). The initiative for this conference was taken two years earlier, at the Shakespeare and European Culture conference held in Basle, Switzerland, in November 2001. With the decision to host this conference in Utrecht, the Dutch and Belgian organizers wanted to make a contribution to what is beginning to look like a new tradition in Shakespeare Studies: a tendency no longer to study Shakespeare in his own historical or national contexts, but also as a literary phenomenon with an international (and therefore also European) afterlife, more often than not read, performed, discussed or quoted in a language other than his own early modern English.

Central at the Utrecht conference was the way in which, over the past 400 years, Shakespeare had played a role of significance within a European framework, particularly where it concerned a series of political events and developments: early modern wars of religion, the emergence of ‘the nation’ during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the First and Second World War, European unification during the 1990s, the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, and Britain’s participation in the war in Iraq.

The conference program consisted of 4 plenary lectures (cultural history, theory, theatre history, and translation), 5 shorter papers, and 6 workshops. As far as the plenaries and shorter papers were concerned, we have succeeded in finding speakers with a great international reputation. The quality of the conference, therefore, was consistently high. In addition, we managed to achieve a certain regional spread. The speakers and their chairs came from England, Germany, France, Ireland, Hungary, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Between the lectures, there were two meetings of 6 workshops for all attendants at the conference. The guests could choose from the following themes: Shakespeare and War (2 groups due to its immense popularity), Shakespeare on stage, Shakespeare in translation, Shakespeare and literary criticism, Shakespeare and film. All workshops were full (partly, we assume, because participation in them enabled our guests to get funding at their home universities), and were hosted in exemplary fashion by an international team with conveners from England, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and Belgium).

There was not only an academic program. We also created opportunities for socializing and recreation. There were excursions (a visit to the unique pen drawing of the Swan theatre in the possession of Utrecht University library, organised walks through Utrecht, and an excursion to Huis Doorn), two poetry recitals (Jacques Darras, William Sutton), and the demonstration of a new database, developed in Basle within the framework of the Shakespeare in European Culture movement (Balz Engler).

As mentioned above, both the lectures and the papers presented during the various workshops were on the whole of a very high quality. This should also become clear in the next few years as a broad selection of the material will appear in printed form. For example, the workshop devoted to Shakespeare and War has yielded a collection, jointly edited by Ros King and Paul Franssen, that is likely to be published by the English publisher Palgrave. Also, the proceedings of the conference are currently being edited by Dirk Delabastita, Jozef de Vos, and Paul Franssen, and will appear with the University of Delaware Press, under the title Shakespeare and European Politics.

Shakespeare and European Politics was an important event in the reception history of Shakespeare in the Low Countries. It was also an important step in the right direction for the European Shake­speare movement. The Utrecht conference has demonstrated that the interest in Shake­speare and his afterlife is very much alive, also beyond England and the English language. Moreover, by involving Britons in the conference (who are, after all, also Europeans) the conference has furthered a process of (re)integration which is likely to obtain a model function within the global context of the Shakespeare industry. Finally, partly due to the enthusiasm generated by the Utrecht event, the decision was taken to host a follow-up conference, to be held in Cracow, Poland.

Paul Franssen