Global Hamlets: Memphis as Cultural Crossroads

October 8, 2012

Written by Alexa Huang

by Scott L. Newstok

Originally published in http://www.smartcitymemphis.com/2012/10/11228/

 

To see Symposium poster, click here.

Globalization” has now been a buzzword for over half a century. Whether one valorizes or villifies the notion, it’s often presumed that the process of globalization is moving us inexorably toward world-wide interconnectedness. But as the University of Memphis’ Wanda Rushing has argued, globalization is rarely uniform. Instead, it often involves a peculiar, sometimes contradictory tension between international and local dynamics. Rushing’s book, Memphis and the Paradox of Place, explores how our city retains its regional roots even as it increasingly engages with a networked global economy.

The Memphis business community certainly prides itself on being a crossroads of international commerce. Our airport ranks second in the world in terms of annual tonnage, leading Globe Trade magazine to give Memphis top honors for “Best Logistics Infrastructure” in its recent list of Top 50 Cities for Global Trade. In 2011, Memphis conferences focused on topics such as global interdependence in food markets and the emergence of global airport cities. The latter was part of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce’s renewed emphasis on rebranding ourselves “America’s Aerotropolis,” as Smart City has previously discussed.

In addition to being a global commercial crossroads, we’re also a global cultural crossroads. Well-attended festivals range from the longstanding Memphis in May and Africa in April to the more recent Global Lens Film series, the International Guitar Festival, and other celebrations supported by local immigrant communities. Colleges of Memphis encourage study with a global focus: see the Buckman Center for International Education at Rhodes; the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training (MHIRT) at CBU; and the Wang Center for International Business, Education, and Research (CIBER) at the University of Memphis.

That complex local/global tension identified by Rushing happens to be an apt way to think of the figure of Shakespeare. Here’s a writer who was locally embedded in his 16th century Warwickshire youth and his London adulthood. Yet during Shakespeare’s lifetime Renaissance Europe was already experiencing an early version of globalization. As the current British Museum exhibition demonstrates, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were clearly “staging the world” as accelerating mercantile and cultural exchange leading to a new awareness of that global/local tension.

Over nearly four centuries since his death, Shakespeare has grown into a worldwide, wildly malleable icon. Nowhere is this malleability more evident than in an overly-familiar play like Hamlet. The 17th century already saw a comically abbreviated version circulating in Germany, with slapstick pratfalls. By the 18th century there were French, Russian, Hungarian, Spanish, Polish, and Dutch translations of the play being performed across Europe. Notable actors chose to omit characters and entire scenes; women were cast in the lead role; editors struggled to come to terms with conflicting versions published during Shakespeare’s lifetime. (So much for the fantasy of fidelity to a playwright’s supposedly original intentions!) This ongoing process of cultural mobility manifested itself last summer in London, where alongside the Olympic games, a multi-lingual Shakespearean marathon took place: 37 plays were performed in 37 different languages for the “Globe to Globe” project, part of the World Shakespeare Festival.

A bit of that global energy arrives on our local Memphis stage this Friday. On October 5, a group of world-renowned Shakespeareans will come to Rhodes College to discuss Hamlet across the globe. “Global Hamlets” will be our fourth free public symposium supported by the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment, a unique fund devoted to supporting Shakespeare studies. Invited speakers include the creator of the “Global Shakespeares” online performance archive (Alexander Huang); the research director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, (David Schalkwyk); a leading scholar of Shakespeare in the Arab world (Margaret Litvin); and an artist who has worked at Shakespeare’s Globe as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company (Nick Hutchison—the visiting director for our April 2013 As You Like It production). All will be exploring Hamlet’s fascinating transformations in modern-day Arab, British, Chinese, and South African contexts. As with our prior Shakespeare symposia—on race, environmental studies, and the King James Bible—this broadly interdisciplinary topic has been generously supported by a wide range of Rhodes programs: Asian Studies, British Studies at Oxford, English, International Studies, Search, and Theatre. And Memphis happily boasts a number of scholars who have engaged with issues of Shakespeare and translation via French, German, and Indian versions.

To provide a performance-based perspective on global Hamlets, Rhodes will screen the 2006 Chinese film The Banquet, a Kung Fu Hamlet adaptation (Thursday, October 4, 7:30pm, Blount Auditorium); Opera Memphis will perform the baritone aria from Ambroise Thomas’ French grand opera Hamlet (at the reception following our October 5 symposium); and the Rhodes Singers fall concert will include Shakespearean words set to music (Sunday, October 21, 3:30pm, St. Anne Catholic Church). As it happens, the Tennessee Shakespeare Company’s current show, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), focuses on Hamlet during its last satirical half hour—and their spring production at the Dixon Gallery will be Hamlet.

Speakers have been encouraged to make their brief presentations accessible to a general audience, with plenty of time devoted to informal discussion. We’ve heard that attendees will include juniors and seniors from Ridgeway’s International Baccalaureate program, and even a high school English teacher flying in from Pasadena, as she’s planning a course on this very topic. This symposium is also attracting Renaissance scholars from around the region, including the co-director of the Conference on John Milton at MTSU, the co-founder of the World Shakespeare Project at Emory University, and the director of the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa.

Please join this audience for “Global Hamlets,” which seeks to take a play you have long thought familiar, and make it richly unfamiliar again.

Leave a Comment