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English Professor Addresses Globalism and Shakespeare

By Kevin Barnum

An English professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Jane Hwang Degenhardt, visited UCI last Thursday to talk about her current research on Shakespeare and globalization.  The lecture, entitled “Shakespeare’s Making of the World: Distance, Horizon, Possibility” was held in Humanities Gateway 1341 and was co-hosted by the Department of English, the UCI Shakespeare Center, and the Center for Culture and Capital.

The event began with a brief introduction from UCI English professor Julia Reinhard Lupton.  She mentioned Professor Degenhardt’s past work on Islam and Christianity in Early Modern plays and mentioned that she and Professor Degenhardt had once collaborated on a volume on religion and early Renaissance drama.

Professor Degenhardt opened her talk by asking, “What can Shakespeare do for the world?” She then moved to a discussion of various productions of Shakespeare plays that transcend the time, place, gender, and ethnicity constraints in order to shift the focus of the plays to various cultural violences.  Don Selwyn’s Māori-language film production of “The Merchant of Venice,” for instance, uses Shakespeare to talk about the Māori people’s mistreatment under British colonialism.

Despite the power in the globalism of such works, Professor Degenhardt stressed that such works are a product of the cultural violence that they represent, saying, “It is important to recognize how Shakespeare’s currency as a global phenomenon and the pathways by which Shakespeare has been disseminated through the world have been forged by colonialism and capitalist-driven commercial networks… Even our impulse to use Shakespeare to help save the world implies a certain globalized vision of the world that is Euro-centric and partly motivated by a related desire to save Shakespeare.”

Professor Degenhardt then asked the question, “Can we get around these impulses?” expressing her desire to understand Shakespeare in a way that remembers the problems of colonialism, but also challenges them.

She went on to outline the history of globalism in Western culture, explaining, “I want to approach the question of how Shakespeare became global by first considering the question of how the world became global.”

Professor Degenhardt discussed Shakespeare’s use, or nonuse, of words like “global,” “globe,” and “world.”  She then traced the conception of the globe from Ptolemy’s “Geographia” through our first pictures of the globe from space in the 1960s.

Her subsequent discussion of the concept of the horizon touched on how it was used in Shakespeare’s time to as a way of dealing with future uncertainty.  The idea of horizon, however, came with risks.

She used this idea of horizon and risk to introduce the final part of her lecture, a discussion of “Antony and Cleopatra” illuminating “the ways in which Shakespeare exposed some of these perils by picking up the concept of the horizon to dramatize the interrelatedness of geographic distance, time and future possibility.”

In one scene, for instance, when Cleopatra hears unfavorable news and asks to hear it again in hopes that it will be different, Professor Degenhardt explains, “the disjuncture between the past and Cleopatra’s present knowledge and future imagining demonstrates the temporal implications of spatial distance which enables simultaneous actions in two different places to occupy the past in one place and the future in another.”

Professor Degenhardt ended her lecture with a series of rhetorical questions about how students can move forward in their understanding of Shakespeare and globalization.

“Is it possible for a theory of Shakespeare’s global reach and his adaptations to work against globalization?… Is it possible for a theory of Shakespeare’s global reach to accommodate multiple worlds?”

Following the talk was a Q & A session in which Professor Degenhardt affirmed the suggestion that Shakespeare’s understanding of the relativity of time presaged Einstein’s.  She also touched further on the problematic belief that Shakespeare needs to be brought everywhere to make the world a better place.

On Jan. 19, UCI will host another event on this theme, “Symposium on Global Shakespeare,” featuring choreographer and professor at the University of Cape Town Jay Pather.