Shakespeare Goes to Utrecht

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A visit to the Netherlands this week gave me the opportunity to see something of the significance of Shakespeare in a European context. The occasion was the Inaugural Lecture at the University of Utrecht of Dr Ton Hoenselaars, who is an authority especially on the European reception of Shakespeare. He studied for his Ph.D. here in Stratford, at the Shakespeare Institute of the University of Birmingham, and his thesis was published in 1992 as Images of Englishmen and Foreigners in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries.

Since writing that he has continued to work in related fields and has recently edited The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists – which he generously dedicated to me. He is also working on what sounds like a potentially fascinating study of Shakespeare and the First World War. His considerable administrative skills find special outlets in his work as Chairman of the Shakespeare Society of the Low Countries – which he founded – and as President of the European Shakespeare Research Association, more commonly known as ESRA.

The lecture itself was an impressive occasion. Ton had invited eminent guests including Professors Manfred Pfister, of the University of Berlin, and Clara Calvo, of the University of Murcia, in Spain, who works with him on the First World War project. She also has special interests in the history of Stratford-upon-Avon as a centre of literary pilgrimage, and it was good to have the opportunity to talk to her about this. The ceremony was conducted with considerable, and impressive, academic formality. We (somewhat self-consciously, it must be admitted) donned the university’s own robes, caps and cravats which made us look rather like the subjects of some of the portraits by Rembrandt which we had seen during a morning visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Thus garbed we walked in formal procession to the great hall which was packed with well-wishers. The lecture itself was given in Dutch, but Ton had summarized it in advance, and made kind reference to his special guests, and the reasons he had chosen them, in English.

At the close of the ceremony we processed out of the hall to the strains of, somewhat surprisingly, Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, chosen no doubt because it was composed for performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was followed by a reception in the course of which a large number of Ton’s friends and students queued to offer him their individual congratulations.

And then of course there was a grand dinner with plenty to eat and drink…

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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