No humanities festival would be complete without an event on Shakespeare. I mean this. Like no other author, the Bard has been holding us in his thrall, as readers and theater goers, generation after generation.
I encountered Shakespeare as a teen – but it wasn’t the Shakespeare most Americans encounter. My Shakespeare didn’t speak in Elizabethan English. Instead, he sounded more like Goethe. No surprise there – after all, I was reading him in the famed translation of August Wilhelm Schlegel, one of the towering figures in the German literary landscape of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Those translations have always been considered true works of art – some even claimed that they rivaled Shakespeare himself. My grandfather was one of those. Having fled from the Nazis to England, he was perfectly capable of reading Shakespeare in the original – and he simply thought that Schlegel’s Shakespeare was better.
August Wilhelm Schlegel
And then, there was the incredible excitement of seeing Shakespeare in the theater, especially Vienna’s grand Burgtheater. Under the directorship of Claus Peymann, it was considered the leading German-speaking stage of the late 1980s and early 1990s (at least I thought so!). There, I experienced yet another Shakespeare, freshly translated for our own times and staged by such theatrical giants as George Tabori, Peter Zadek, and Peymann himself. Zadek’s legendary Merchant of Venice was particularly galvanizing. Premiered in 1988, it spoke directly to Austria’s compromised history and the country’s recalcitrance, in contrast to Germany, to deal with its Nazi past.
Zadek's Merchant of Venice
Shakespeare, these experiences impressed on me, is universal not because he is the same everywhere, but because he means different things in different times and places. This power to resonate across historical and cultural boundaries is, to me at least, the true greatness of the Bard.
Ania Loomba captures this dimension like no other scholar working today. Ania, the Catherine Bryson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the world’s leading Shakespeare experts and the pioneer of a postcolonial approach to his work.
Now, what does that mean? Postcolonial theory originated in the 1970s and 1980s, pioneered by such scholars as Edward Said, whose seminal book Orientalism proposed that the West’s knowledge of the East was the result of systematic misrecognition across colonial lines.
Ania, who was born and raised in Delhi and educated there and in England, applied this proposition to Shakespeare. Reading his work from a South Asian perspective, she was particularly interested in the ways Shakespeare portrayed the non-European, non-white, and non-Christian. And she was keen to understand how Shakespeare was played in the non-European world. What would it look like, for example, if an African company put on Othello?
The response to such questions is a series of path-breaking books: Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism, Post-Colonial Shakespeares, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, and Race in Early Modern England. These studies have given us a new Shakespeare, a writer who contemplated the world far beyond the confines of Europe and did so in ways that at once reflected and reshaped the continent’s conception of itself and others.
Ania is one of the most charismatic and brilliant intellectuals I have ever met – and I was utterly delighted when she agreed to take part in this year’s CHF. In her lecture on “Shakespeare and the Black Body,” she will present the central findings of her research, giving us a direct view of the cutting edge of Shakespeare scholarship. I doubt that any of us will look at such figures as Othello or Shylock the same again, whether we read them in Vienna or see them on the stage in Chicago.
#610: Sat, Nov. 13 1:30 - 2:30 PM
Tags: Shakespeare, drama, culture