Panel 5: Born before and after Shakespeare

This two-session panel aims at showing how Shakespeare’s leading position in Elizabethan and Jacobean studies in France has to some extent fostered, delayed and/or shaped research on contemporary English authors, be they born slightly earlier or later than Shakespeare.

Why and how did Shakespeare, rather than any other, become such a central figure in the country’s literary history? In early modern England, Shakespeare was not always the national bard and admired author he came to become, as is exemplified by Robert Greene’s scathing description of the budding playwright as an “upstart crow beautified with our feathers”.

The canonization of the Shakespearean corpus was first the result of an editorial process, with the prefatory material to the 1623 folio bearing witness to Shakespeare’s key “position in the burgeoning family tree of English poetry”. Although adapted at times, as by poet laureate Dryden in the 17th century, or later bowdlerized in the early 19th century to fit public taste, the publication history of Shakespeare’s works in England confirms their canonical status, owing the playwright the posthumous title of England’s official national bard.

In France, despite making some biting comments about his plays, Voltaire was the first to mention Shakespeare’s genius. In doing so, he was initiating a long-standing tradition of panegyrics whereby French authors would pay homage to the dramatist whose popularity across the Channel was such that “la langue de Shakespeare” became a set phrase for the English language as a whole.

As far as academic publications and research are concerned, Shakespeare’s legacy has inspired some retrospective interpretations of the western canon with prominent critics such as Harold Bloom defining the anxiety of Shakespeare’s influence on later epigones, in sharp contrast to the 1980’s neo-historicist theories on self-fashioning. We would like to discuss renewed perspectives, different from both approaches, to reconsider (self-)canonization practices and the interrelations of some “self-crowned laureates”.

Shakespeare’s dominant position in literary history and early modern studies has also reverberated in France through the history of translations and stage performances of Elizabethan, Jacobean and Carolean authors. In the foreword to the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Théâtre élisabéthain (2009), Line Cottegnies writes that up until the last years, Shakespeare seemed to have partially eclipsed other dramatists and poets, thus deemed “Shakespeare’s contemporaries”. The two-volume edition, offering translations by a great number of leading early modernists, is therefore presented as a way of promoting lesser-known writers in print and on stage. Building on such recent ventures, we would like to delve into the bias some earlier Shakespeare-centred approach has entailed in our perception of early modern writers and into the possibility of looking at Shakespeare as his “contemporaries’ contemporary”. This will lead us to question such categories as “forerunner”, “successor” or “co-author” in literary history.

The contributions to the panel may deal with the libido influendi of early modern writers, whose strategies of self-canonization (as studied by Richard Helgerson of Raphael Falco) may be compared to Shakespeare’s own. Contributors could also offer views on whether source- and analogue-hunting for Shakespeare’s plays and poems has maybe either led to reappraising hypo- or hyper-texts or rather filtered their approach further through a Shakespearean prism. Finally, contributions on the relative importance of Shakespeare and/or his contemporaries in French departments of English studies, in translation or on stage, may also shed greater light on these issues, as would a comparison with current research trends in English departments around the world.

Proposals should be sent to ->] and [ by July 31st, 2013. Please include name, email, affiliation, abstract (250-300 words) and title of your contribution.