Shakespeare on the Road symposium, 11th October 2013

Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

I spent Friday 11th October in Stratford-upon-Avon at the launch of Shakespeare on the Road, a project between the University of Warwick, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and Misfits, inc. to celebrate the 2014-16 anniversaries of Shakespeare’s birth and death. In what sounds like a rather wonderful (and enviable!) summer, the team are travelling across the United States visiting around 17 Shakespeare Festivals to provide an account of the as-yet-undocumented ways in which Shakespeare is performed, experienced and interpreted in US Festival settings.

This symposium marked the launch of the project and was an opportunity to discuss some of the initial questions proposed by and arising from the project. Throughout the day we heard a fascinating range of papers about different aspects of Shakespeare and/in the USA: Nicola Watson spoke about Shakespeare Gardens in the US as sites of memorial and commemoration that cultivate a particularly “English”, and feminised, space; Andrew Dickson talked about Shakespeare’s presence in the history of the American West – place-names, accounts of reading on the road – a theme picked up on later in Tim Lockley‘s paper on the appropriation of Shakespeare in the colonial period as a legacy of “Englishness”.

There’s also the long history of American interest in the Birthplace, including the (perhaps mythical) story of the American showman P.T. Barnum who, so it is said, tried to purchase the Birthplace in 1847 with the intention of shipping it to the USA where it would become part of his travelling circus (more on that here) – a point I picked up on at the end of my paper on the interconnections between literature, nation and place to pose the question: what if Barnum had been successful and transported the Birthplace away from Stratford-upon-Avon – so that it became, in the words of Dickens’s Wemmick, ‘portable property’? What might this lead us to ask about the location of national culture – is it in the walls of the house, the ground on which it stands, the national audience that experiences it, all of those things together; can national culture be detached from national place and still have meaning, and what alternative perspectives might new national contexts have generated?

Ideas of place were central to Stuart Elden’s paper on Shakespeare’s territories which, following on from his new book The Birth of Territory, began to explore the ways in which territory is used and understood in Shakespeare’s plays. Steve Purcell also raised questions about the appropriation of space in festival contexts, where the carnivalisation of outdoor spaces often plays a central role in crafting ideas and expectations around Shakespeare Festivals and Ruth Leary spoke about festivals from a cultural policy perspective, and posed interesting ideas about the idea of creative economy and cultural entrepreneurship today and in Shakespeare’s own activity.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to participate in such an enjoyable day generating some stimulating research questions, and it’ll be fascinating to see how the project develops over the next couple of years.

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