On Thursday 20 March a special Shakespeare delegation visited the European Parliament in Brussels. We had nothing to do with the Heads of State meeting there to discuss the appalling political situation in the Ukraine and Crimea. But in someways we had everything to do with it.
One of our local M.E.P.s, Malcolm Harbour C.B.E., had organised an opportunity for us to make a presentation about the concept that the European Union should name Shakespeare as European Laureate in 2016.
Our party comprised:
Shaul Bassi, Associate Professor of English, Ca’Foscari, University of Venice
Silvia Bigliazzi, Professor of English Literature, University of Verona
Cortina Butler, Director Literature, The British Council
Michael Dobson, Professor of Shakespeare Studies and Director, The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham
Tobias Doring, Professor of English at Ludwig-Maxamillian Univerity, Munich and President of The German Shakespeare Society
Dominique Goy-Blanquet, Professor Emeritus, University of Picardie.
Rui Carvalho Homem, Professor of English, University of Porto and Chair of The European Shakespeare Association.
Stanley Wells C.B.E., Honorary President, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Professor Emeritus, University of Birmingham.
We made a collective presentation to M.E.P.s and their assistants about Shakespeare’s place in European culture, and we managed to speak only for about five minutes each!
Shakespeare was not an English writer. He was a European one. His work is essentially European in origin. With its strong Italian and French influences, it represents a flourishing of the European Renaissance. Shakespeare became an important voice in the rise and development of the Romantic movement in Germany and, in the age of Revolution, in other European countries including France and Italy. He has been invoked in times of crises and war by many different cultures. He has spoken for people who have been oppressed by States’ regimes. Shakespeare includes religious and ethnic minorities in his plays, minorities which speak to the prejudices and promises of a multicultural Europe. His works have inspired innumerable European creative artists in all fields of artistic endeavour – opera, the novel, poetry, the visual arts, theatre and film among them. In 2011 the World Shakespeare Congress (which takes place every five years) took place in Prague. There are thriving Shakespeare festivals across Europe, for example in Craiova (Rumania) and Dubrovnik (Croatia). He continues to speak to our current hopes and fears in times of war and in times of peace.
By naming Shakespeare as European Laureate in 2016 our European Union would be acknowledging that its on-going unity depends on more than fiscal or economic policies and that Shakespeare can indeed symbolise European thought, artistic endeavour and culture in dialogue with many other cultural voices world-wide. Also, a hundred years on since the First World War, Shakespeare as European Laureate would powerfully symbolise our shared ambitions for peace and reconciliation.
We presented a diverse anthology about Shakespeare’s place and impact on our own cultures which truly illustrated just how he has become embedded in European culture. We saw photographs of statues of Shakespeare in different countries; heard about how Shakespeare contributes to the tourist economy of Verona (where you can see Romeo and Juliet’s houses and Juliet’s tomb); we heard about a former King of Portugal and a former Communist Party leader of Portugal who translated Shakespeare (at different times); there are plans to produce The Merchant of Venice in Venice in 2016 (which also marks the 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto there); an actor playing Hamlet made a prominent contribution to the protests at the Berlin Wall in 1989; and then there is the great conference ‘Shakespeare450’ looming in Paris in April. And this note was shared on behalf of the European Shakespeare Research Association: ‘the Ukrainian Shakespeare Research Centre and the Laboratory for Renaissance Studies in Zaporizhzhia have been making huge efforts to maintain their activity in the middle of a very difficult political situation. Their motto, as expressed in a recent message, is ‘Let Shakespeare be our commonly-shared European value.’
It was a most fascinating and exciting day. Together we made a compelling case for Shakespeare to be named European Laureate, as a writer who transcends national boundaries and who many countries in Europe think of as their own. Now, what might that look like, what might it mean, and how might it actually be achieved? Watch this space.