Reflections on the Shakespeare conference in Prague, July 2011

A guest post from Alex Huang, General Editor, The Shakespearean International Yearbook

The 9th World Shakespeare Congress was held in the beautiful old town of Prague, July 17-22, 2011. Held once every four years and organized by the International Shakespeare Association with local hosts, this conference has become the convention of record and a cultural event in its own right. Shakespearean scholars, educators, directors, actors, and students from all over the world descended on Prague for a week of engaging conversation and performances.

As part of the Prague Shakespeare Summer Festival, the outdoor performance of Henry IV (both parts abridged, in Czech, for one evening) at the Prague Castle was one of the highlights, featuring a simple but creative, tiered stage set populated by high-back chairs that were more than props. In the final scene they took on the air of live characters.

Professor Marjorie Garber’s talk in the visually striking Estates Theatre provided insights into Shakespeare and Kafka, two men of letters who never met but nonetheless seem to be on the same wavelength. Her talk is wittily titled “Czech Mates: When Shakespeare Met Kafka.” Conference delegates not only eagerly attended performances and talks, but jumped at the opportunity to engage in debates about topics that shape the future of the field. The renowned Canadian playwright Djanet Sears’ candid reflection on her Othello-inspired play “Harlem Duet” set in motion a heated debate about early modern and postmodern conceptions of race and critical and artistic approaches to racial discourses in Shakespeare.

Ashgate authors and editors had a major presence in Prague. As the co-founder and co-editor of Global Shakespeares, I led a workshop on digital Shakespeare and international performances with Peter Donaldson (co-founder and editor-in-chief) at the conference. The workshop, “Global Shakespeares in the Digital Archive,” was attended by more than 100 participants. We presented a report on the current status of the open-access digital video archive, demonstrated how it can be used in research and teaching, and outlined many ways in which scholars and students can become involved in the project. I also offered a dynamic visual model of how the project can function to shift academic practice toward close comparative readings of performance through the making and sharing of video sequences.

Nicholas Clary (Editor of HamletWorks and of the MLA New Variorum Edition of Hamlet) and Peter Donaldson took the audience through a tour of how the rich commentary notes and textual annotations of HamletWorks might be combined with the image and video resources of  Global Shakespeares and MIT’s Shakespeare Electronic Archive.  Choosing a single line from Hamlet that exists in two distinct forms in the early texts, they showed how in an integrated interface a user might move from that variant line to more than 50 commentary notes from the 17th to 20th centuries, through numerous illustrations and art works depicting the moment at which Hamlet comes upon the King in prayer and has an opportunity to take revenge, then through the corresponding moments in Olivier’s 1947 film, the Ryutopia Company’s 2007 production (in Japanese) and in Ham-Let, a Brazilian production of 1993.Liana Leao, Anna Camati and Celia Arns, Global Shakespeares editors for Brazil gave a report on their work on the archive including video extracts from the director interviews they are conducting, and Poonam Trivedi, editor for India discussed the difficulties as well as the successes in her work on the archive, and raised theoretical issues concerning the “global,” how that term structures our current understanding of the project, and how we might make the site more international.   Discussion was intense and productive.

Global Shakespearean performances in our times often move across various media (such as incorporating cinematic elements into stage productions and vice versa) and reference other adaptations. For these reasons, we have spent the past decade building Global Shakespeares (launched in 2010; suite of teaching tools launched in 2011). Based at MIT, http://globalshakespeares.org/ offers full videos of recorded performances and video highlights of select productions, many of which have English subtitles. At present, the archive covers Shakespeare in India, East Asia, Brazil, the Arab world, the U.S. and U.K.

With an extensive collection of full video records and video highlights of theatrical performances (many with English subtitles), stage photos, and play scripts and interviews from Asia, the U.S., and Europe, the digital project is designed to serve as a core resource that is free for students, teachers, and researchers.

Our goal is to provide both a video-driven and a more familiar catalogue and filtered search method of moving through the collection, with the option to switch modes at any time. We believe that a digital, video-based global Shakespeare archive, beginning with a substantial body of work in Asia, with new tools for annotating, replaying and sharing user-defined video segments has the potential to transform how we think about Asia, Shakespeare, and the world, and how we use performance materials.

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