3 May 2019: Shakespeare in Translation: A Conference Report (German Shakespeare Society annual conference)

Fabulous. A fabulous conference, and anybody who was not there definitely missed out on some great research, trends, and activities. Luckily, the German Shakespeare Society conference happens every year, most of the time in the beautiful town of Weimar, so make sure to get there in 2020 when it’s all about Shakespeare and dance, apparently (to be confirmed soon).

For sundry weighty reasons, I only came to the second of three days, Saturday, but the programme as a whole really looks amazing, plenty of theatre and museum visits to opt into, and great international speakers like Warren Boutcher, Rui Carvalho Homem, and Alessandra Petrini (programme http://shakespeare-gesellschaft.de/en/conferences/upcoming.html – it’s in German, hm, though the programme is not…). My own panel in the morning was packed with brilliant early career presenters, giving provocative lightning presentations, summaries as follows:

Christine Schwanecke, junior professor at Mannheim University, spoke about self-translation in Henry IV, asking just why are there so many apparent re-caps and repetitions of the plot. (So translation in the sense of offering the same in a new form, form as language, not as in from one language to the other). Scholarship (she mentioned my old friend from Cambridge Callan Davies here, woop woop!) tends to give practical reasons, that theatre goers were dropping in and out of the playhouses buying snacks, and things and got too drunk to follow the linear action properly, circumstances which playwrights accommodated for by including micro-summaries of the plots. Christine disagreed, and explored two types of repetition, that is, diegetic and mimetic, the former being reports and messages recapping action, the latter referring to play inlets such as dumbshows and the like. She suggested these two kinds of multiple repetitions show that history (who’s in, who’s out, to speak with Lear) has little to do with God-given determination, but is made by narrative, that is, rumour. Through the insistance of re-telling events, Shakespeare emphasises that it’s the stories we choose to repeat which cause new stories to emerge and so on. An eternal spinning-off. Somebody asked an interesting question on whether we can at all speak of an original, then, if all sort of comes out of itself in an ever-circling spiral, as it were, and Christine said she deliberately avoided speaking of original and imitation, because she believes that’s not even the point of Shakespeare’s recapping. I’m not sure I do justice to Christine’s paper, but this is what I got while pre-occupied with my own paper which followed.

Then, it was my turn, and I spoke about shrew translations, or rather translation of women, see my previous post. I’ve put my research together in an article which submitted to this year’s Shakespeare Yearbook call, fingers crossed y’all can read about it next year!

The next mini-panel were Emilie Ortiga from Le Havre, and Jonas Kellermann from the University of Konstanz. Emilie’s paper looked at how Shakespeare trickled into France, focussing on Balzac’s reception and circulation of him. She mentioned a great instance from a Balzac novel (I missed which one) where a woman is singing the willow song from Rossini’s opera Otello, creating multiple echoes back to the Shakespearean original. The singer works through her grief about being cheated by her husband, while realizing her own attraction to another man who is in love with her,

and at that very moment of singing is staring at her intensely. She falters, which foreshadows her own relationship with this man, which, if we think of the lyrics from Shakespeare rather than Rossini, we already know even then (‘I’ll couch with more women, if you’ll couch with more men’). Note well that there are different versions of this popular ballad, some of whom do not include mutual cheating. Check out Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook for this one, and also publications by Linda Phyllis Austern. Having worked on Shakespeare, music, and memory in my PhD, I really loved this beautiful intertextual knot.

Jonas’ paper went really well with Emilie’s (and also spoke to my past research!), treating ballet performances of Romeo and Juliet, that is, the translatability of Shakespeare into dance. Usually, the ballet set piece of RJ is the pas de deux, the most intense duo dance, witness performances of Prokofiev’s opera. As Jonas said, ballet is all about tricking gravity, becoming air, ether. At least, the woman’s part is. All men do (or most of their function in ballet anyway), is lift women into that state of weightlessness. The aim is to show off legs and feet, basically. Although this can result in quite intense intimate emotion-laden dancing, it also means a discreteness, a lack of melting into one-ness, between the male and femal dancer. And that, surely, cannot be the point of Romeo and Juliet. Jonas, then, presented on a performance by Sasha Valtz of the ballet using the technique of contact improvisation, a form of modern dance from the 60s which is torso-based rather than leggie, as it were, and in which dancers give and take the weight of each other in continual action and reaction (called ‘listening’, or ‘noticing’). That means sometimes Romeo is carrying Juliet, and sometimes Juliet is carrying Romeo. Here’s to feminist dancing. This equality and closeness, Jonas mentioned, also communicates through the lovers’ linguistic reciprocity, and their rhyming intimacy. He mentioned my article on dance, rhetoric, and cognition in the brandnew Oxford Handbook to Shakespeare and Dance, which was very kind of him – somebody’s reading my stuff! Feeling happy and sheepish at once.

The next panel featured Marie Menzel, a PhD student at the Free University of Berlin, talking about how to translate Tragedy (yes, capital T) into the 21st century through the example of recent British stagings of Richard II. She looked at the Hollow Crown film of 2012, an RSC production from 2013, and a Globe one from 2015, realizing that all of them had changed one particular detail: where the text suggests Exton is the murderer of Richard, these productions shifted the act to Aumerle. Marie asked herself why this was the case, offering a possible answer in the dynamics of revision, the need to make the play (and Tragedy in general) relevant to modern audiences. In all versions, Richard and Aumerle had kissed before, making the subsequent murder all the more, well, tragic, placing the reasons for the catastrophic events on interpersonal grievances rather than, for example, divine-predestination, the rise and fall conception of Tragedy, the Elizabethan understanding of it. Tragic affect is created through the (added? emphasized?) queer love story between the king and lord, which is supposed to make the murder more intelligible to us. I came out with lots of questions, a good thing I guess, and lots of disagreement, for example with Marie’s statement that a modern audience cannot empathize with certain circumstances or understand conceptions of Tragedy anymore; that things have lost their relevance; that we need stories to change in order to enjoy, appreciate, or even get what’s going on. I strongly disagree with that, and one does not need to go far to look for even objective proof, re the Oresteia at the Globe in 2015. I think what’s more at stake in the unaccountable changing of who’s the murderer is that it’s those productions (rather than us the audience) which cannot manage the sheer randomness of the murder that happens because Exton interprets Henry’s gaze in Act 5.4. They suffer from a lack of negative capability, the frightening but all too frequent occurrence that random things can acquire so much momentum, that, restrospectively, they start looking like inevitability. Shakespeare is great at exploring that (for example in the random picking of rose colours by the factions in H6, resulting in what seems necessary but was accidental).

The last paper was a complete eye-opener. Anja Hartl, also from Konstanz, presented on myth-making in Dunsinane, a Macbeth-inspired play by Greig from 2000. I’ve never heard of this at all, and want to go off and read it right now. Anja spoke about how the play challenges neat historical assumptions by engaging with the facts of the real Macbeth’s reign (much longer and much more benign than portrayed in the propagandistic Shakespeare play). What we think we know is not what we actually know, historically speaking, under-cutting narratives (and even counter-narratives) of Scottish identity emerging from that dramatic myth. I’m so excited about the play, and want to see how it speaks to Scotland, back in its making almost 20 years ago, and today, post-referenda on independence and Brexit.

Rather than opting for papers, I participated in an acting workshop after our sessions, and after that in a presentation by Michael Mitchell on teaching Shakespeare at schools through prose spin-offs such as Atwood’s Hag-seed, or Chevalier’s New Boy – a long list that I am looking forward to diving into.

I can really recommend this annual conference which was well organized in beautiful surroundings, and featured lots of highly interesting and relevant papers, as well as other activities around drama.