European Shakespeare: A Brief History

The past two decades have witnessed a steadily growing interest among Shakespeareans to study the position of the playwright and poet in European culture from the earliest times to the present. Among other things, this interest has focused on the constitutive role that Shakespeare has played as an important factor of European identity. In order to define this role and the sense of European selfhood at various moments in the history of the Continent (including the British Isles), scholars have studied the shared memories going back to the Greeks and the Romans, but also the 400 years of Shakespearean appropriations, all against the objectives for a European federation based, in addition to economic and political goals, on explicit cultural ideals and objectives.

The steady rise of the self-acknowledged European Shakespeareans effectively began in 1990. This was the year when Dirk Delabastita and Lieven D'hulst organised their European Shakespeares conference at the University of Antwerp's Higher Institute for Translators and Interpreters in 1990. Major conferences soon followed, like Shakespeare in the New Europe (Sofia), which was designed as a response to the political realities of the 1990s. This 1993 event explicitly responded to the rapid developments that followed the razing of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The “Wende” created a reunited Germany, but it also furthered the collapse of communist rule across central and Eastern Europe, and triggered the emergence of multiple new nation states that became politically liberated almost at the time when the free west was officially entering into a European Union.

It was on this wave of this European self-consciousness that the third conference of the European Society of English Studies (ESSE) in Glasgow accommodated the round table discussion initiated by Mariangela Tempera (Ferrara), and that Ángel-Luis Pujante of the University of Murcia later managed to get funding for his research project devoted to the presence of Shakespeare in Spain within the framework of European culture. In 1998, Ángel-Luis Pujante's efforts resulted in a meeting held in Murcia to study the possibility of creating a European Shakespeare research association, followed, a year later, by the successful 400 Years of Shakespeare in Europe there. Since then, with intervals of two years, related theme conferences have been organised at Basle (Shakespeare in European Culture, 2001), at Utrecht (Shakespeare and European Politics, 2003), at Krakow (Shakespeare, History and Memory, 2005), at Iasi (Shakespeare, Nation(s) and Boundaries, 2007), at Pisa (Shakespeare and Conflict, 2009), Weimar (Shakespeare's Shipwrecks, 2011), and Montpellier (Shakespeare and Myth, 2013), Worcester (Shakespeare’s Europe - Europe’s Shakespeare, 2015), and Gdansk (Shakespeare and European Theatrical Cultures, 2017), Rome (Shakespeare and European Geographies: Centralities and Elsewheres, 2019) and Athens (Shakespeare’s Nature | Art | Politics, 2021).

Seeing that European Shakespeare was going from strength to strength, the original steering group of Shakespeareans who had met in 1998 convened again in Murcia in June 2006, with the support of new devotees. The meeting included the organisers from the University of Murcia (Ángel-Luis Pujante, Clara Calvo, and Keith Gregor), Balz Engler (Basle, Switzerland),  Michael Hattaway (Sheffield, UK), Ton Hoenselaars (Utrecht, The Netherlands), Alexander Shurbanov (Sofia, Bulgaria), Dirk Delabastita (Namur, Belgium), and Marta Gibinska (Cracow, Poland).  In 1998, the decision had been taken to create an association to further the European Shakespeare initiative, but, for the time being anyway, it was considered preferable to avoid any form of stifling bureaucracy in the form of a legal status, of rules, or of membership fees. The European Shakespeare initiative ought to have a chance to prove itself. If in the years to come, colleagues continued to organise conferences and seminars around European themes, there was no real need for a formal association. Now, for a number of mainly practical reasons, the objective has been set to secure a more official status for the European Shakespeare initiative by founding an organisation with registered but non-fee-paying members, as well as to implement a pan-European research project (ESRA Announcement). The next European Shakespeare conference will take in Athens, Greece in 2021.

Ton Hoenselaars ( and Clara Calvo (